I cannot stop thinking about some of the things people have written regarding pain or doing things that others perceive as painful, but that they perceive as relief or calm or being more present.  One person described it as feeling “organized.”  And then there are the people who described various types of synesthesia coupled with pain.  So I wanted to circle back to synesthesia specifically as this is something I know little about and I’m assuming many others may be unfamiliar with it as well.

*For those of you who are synesthetes, please jump in and comment or email me ( privately.  Anything you tell me will be treated as confidential unless you give me permission to quote you, I will paraphrase and not use your name.

There are a number of interesting websites (these are just a few I found particularly interesting, but there are dozens more):  Neuroscience for Kids – Synesthesia,  American Synesthesia Association,  Brain Pickings, ScienceBlogs and explains:  “Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (e.g., hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another modality (e.g. vision). Likewise, perception of a form (e.g., a letter) may induce an unusual perception in the same modality (e.g. a color).”  Synesthesia is thought to be inherited affecting 2-4% of the population, though there is no evidence to suggest a higher prevalence of synesthesia in Autistics and it seems women are more likely to experience it than men.  *It must be noted, everything I’ve written in this paragraph was gathered on the internet and almost all of the various articles are written by non-Autistic people.  I have added links to the original sources throughout.

Someone described how they can smell colors and another wrote about being able to smell people’s emotions.  They described being able to smell someone they saw from a distance or on television.  Another person wrote that when they meet someone they see color.  Someone else wrote about how a particular self-induced pain causes them to see the most beautiful flashes of colors, exquisite and unique and unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.  And still others talk about how numbers or letters have personalities, this is called, ordinal-linguistic personification. One person described it as a numeric “soap opera” and said, “2 and 4 are in love, but 3 hangs around and is like an annoying little brother, always wanting to be included, but nobody wants him around.”

I found a great post by Jessica Bagnall entitled, Synesthesia-Why My Numbers Have Personalities, she writes, “Five is a businessman that has a half-relationship with Eight, though he is unable to commit. He is flaky and often impossible to get hold of, though he tries to be more stable. He is the older brother of Seven.

And then I read this Autism and Synethesia (the mis-spelling is on the site):  “On a whim, I asked my son Tom, age 11, if he sees colors when he plays notes on the piano. Tom, who is diagnosed with high functioning autism, plays both piano and clarinet. Oh, yes, he said, he does! Here are the note/color correlations he gave me, right off the top of his head:

  • C=red
  • D=orange
  • E=yellow
  • F=green
  • G=blue
  • A=”pink”
  • B=violet

I drew a series of dots in the colors he gave me, and asked him to play them on the piano. He played Frere Jacques flawlessly.

I looked up synesthesia, and found that there’s a close link between synesthesia relative to music – and perfect pitch (which Tommy has).”

I have to wonder whether my daughter experiences some version of synesthesia and if most who are profoundly moved by music do as well.  Which then lead me to think about art, poetry, writing, painting, sculpture and dance.  Are all of us born with some degree of synesthesia, which we then lose as we mature?  Just as all of us are capable of learning many languages as young children, but as we grow older acquisition of other languages becomes increasingly difficult, is this true with synesthesia as well?  As with so much surrounding neurology, I find the more I learn, the more questions I have!

To all of you who have shared your stories – thank you.  Many of you have shared incredibly personal things and I’d like to acknowledge that and tell you how grateful I am.  So thank you, really, thank you for being willing to describe such personal things.  I am profoundly grateful to all who’ve reached out to me.  I hope I’m doing your experiences justice in these posts.

Em at dusk running through the sprinklers on the ranch – Summer 2011

Back Camera

31 responses to “Synesthesia

  1. Oh my! Ohhhh, don’t get me started:) I’ll try to make this brief.
    Years ago, I was enjoying my morning coffee and paper in bed, with Doc half asleep beside me. I was reading an article in the Washington Post about something I had never heard of. Synesthisia. I thought it was one of the dumbest articles I ever read! Surely, I thought, everyone experiences the discribed sensory signals! I turned to my highly musical bandleader husband and said, “Don’t you see colors and patterns when you listen to music?” He patted my arm, softly laughing, and said, “No, Sweetheart, only angels do.”
    I thought that was ridiculous! Surely, everyone has seem Fantasia! Why else would they call the Blues the Blues? What about someone being a colorful person, or, in the pink? Or saying something that they look at stinks? Suddenly, my whole idea of reality was cracked wide open. I knew I had some extreme sensory challenges, but had no idea I was experiencing the world in a whole different a way. I began constantly asking him and others what they saw, heard, tasted, etc, in minute detail, describing and comparing. I trusted nothing as real. While many thing were, thankfully, the same, a lot was not, but I found…I got the best end of the deal! Having viserol reactions to color, or experiencing the world in a multi sensory way has GOT to be what I find most appealling in life. Example: I always thought that the beauty of a crystal chandelier was the streams of gorgeous colored light that hit the prisms and bouced back against the walls in sharp rainbow rays. That was what chandeliers were for, and I enjoyed it, and thought everyone else did. I found out most people just see so much glass, with some sparkle. I won’t go on and describe it all, as there is SO MUCH, but I am surprised that this is not seen much more prevalently in autistic people, as I assumed it when hand in hand with my sensory processing. Could it have more to do with having a more artisting mind, rather than autistic. Does it matter? It is what makes me…me. There may be lots of things I’d like to find less challenging, or improve about myself, but not this. Please, no, don’t ever let me lose this. Really…what is the point of music if you can’t see it? Ariane, I think you’re going to have fun with this! ❤❤❤

    • Really interesting. I have to speak with Richard about all of this, because everything I’ve read says it is almost certainly inherited and that they believe the gene is dominant, which is fascinating too. I will not be surprised at all if Emma sees music. In fact I will be surprised if she doesn’t!

  2. Amazing young adult book dealing with synesthesia- A Mango Shaped Space.

    • Love your book recommendations. Just got it on my iPad! Also, any good books, (age appropriate) that you recommend for me to read to Em? She loved the biography of Helen Keller. Wondering if you know of any others, fiction too is good.

  3. I don’t know if I am synaesthetic but most things in the world are complex and consist of an orchestra of colours, images, physical sensations and emotions all at the same time.Words come with colours, numbers live in an entire world, have definite personalities and are not abstract, sound causes physical pleasure or pain. I have a particularly weird one where being thirsty is not a physical sensation for me, it is an emotional one; when I am thirsty I feel homesick. Even if I am at home! Music is very overwhelming for me and mostly only bearable if I can draw while listening. Then the swoops and curves of music can be placed where they belong – as visual lines on the page.
    Everything is potentially too much. Not really emotionally too much, but thinking, visualising, physically too much. Everything is an instant multi-layered, multi-part movie/data stream in my head. So when I look at something, or hear something it comes with a stream of accompanying data, not just about that thing, but also all the associations that accompany it. Mostly this is manageable and I don’t get bothered by it, unless I am also having to speak, or complete a task. Then it is very distracting! But I love my brilliant, entertaining brain so it is okay.

  4. And may I also just say thank you Ariane for making your blog a space where I for one and I am sure everyone else, feels safe and acknowledged and listened to. It is a relief to share some of the strangeness of my autism where there are other folks who get it, so thank you!

    • That is so nice of you to say…. I don’t think any of it strange, more wonderful and beautiful. I so appreciate your sharing what you have. It’s terrific to see so many who have versions of the same.

  5. Synesthesia is interesting. Something I wrote about it is in this post on The Musical Autist:

  6. Ariane: “I have to wonder whether my daughter experiences some version of synesthesia and if most who are profoundly moved by music do as well.”

    I am a musician with synesthesia, but my synesthesia is not music-related. However, another Autistic trait affects my pleasure with music.

    I have Vestibular Hyperacusis ( . . . which, as I think on it, is sort of like a sound to motion synaesthesia, although I think the mechanisms behind it are different from a true sound to motion synaesthesia. (I have a friend, by the way, with motion to sound synaesthesia. She said she first realized people did perceive the world the same way when, as a child, she talked about the sound the birds were making and the adults were confused. She was talking about the sound she heard when they moved their feet on the electrical wire they were sitting on.)

    The down side of vestibular hyperacusis is that noises can make me fall down or throw up. Teakettles, Salvation Army bells, telephones ringing, doorbells, squeaky hinges — these kinds of things are murder on me. I’m told that it might get better when I get old and start to lose some of my high register hearing. I worry that I will still suffer because I have abnormally high hearing now. I can hear the lower range of bat echolocation.

    The upside of vestibular hyperacusis is that, just as alcohol makes a person sick if they drink too much but happy if they drink a little, a little bit of hyperacusis is a very good thing. I love a good soprano because they hit those notes that send me flying. When Maria Callas sings “O Mio Babbino Caro,” I start flapping my hands and my whole body shakes from the tremendous sensations coursing through me. Afterwards, it takes a while before I can walk.

    I can’t listen to the radio while driving because I have no control over the sounds that come through and that can be dangerous. But I do have a CD player in my car — I consider it a medical necessity,not a luxury (and you will rarely see such a nice CD player in a 1984 junker! LOL) I burn CDs from my rather large music collection, choosing only music that is safe for me to drive to. Then I use that music to drown out the other disorienting sounds on the road. I can still hear car horns and sirens, but I block out a lot of the distracting and sickening sounds of the world so my driving is safer.

    • Wow, thanks so much for sharing this. Driving for long periods must be brutal. Does the weather affect the sounds? For instance driving in a blizzard or rain?

      • For various reasons, all of them sensory, I can’t drive for more than 30 minutes at a time. I can take longer trips but I have to stop every half hour, get out, walk around, try to find a quiet place. Even with that, I’d rather drive than take a bus. Busses are sensory nightmares — I can’t do them at all.

        I have surprisingly little additional problem with driving in bad weather conditions. Lower visibility is my biggest anxiety factor then. But I also learned that I am quite calm in extreme situations. Last winter, I was driving on a normal sunny day when suddenly a blizzard moved down from the mountains and piled several inches of wet, slippery snow on the roads in the space of maybe ten minutes – it was a snow downpour and I was caught out in it.

        My tires slipped and I started spinning in the middle of a busy road. I pumped the brakes, steered into the spin, and stopped the car . . . facing the wrong way! So I did a U-turn and continued driving. It took a few mintues before I realized:

        a. I hadn’t hit anyone else!
        b. I hadn’t panicked — I was totally calm.

  7. My partner is a synesthete, he sees colors and flashes of light related to certain sounds. It was much more pronounced when he was a child and shows up now when he is stressed out or fatigued, physically or emotionally. We believe he is on the spectrum and finally we have found a way to get him an evaluation! My son has autism and I noticed (after learning of my partner’s synesthsia) that when my son was younger, and would spin things, he didn’t watch them, he listened to them. He would spin the wheels on his stroller when it was folded up and against the wall and place his ear very close to it (I worried about him getting his hair caught in the wheel at times). He would spin my coffee travel mug and listen to it. He could spin coins also, and of course the wheels on his toy cars. He wouldn’t only watch it though, he would listen and I had to wonder what he hears. He was non verbal at the time so he couldn’t tell us. I have seen articles online where studied have found synesthesia is more common in people on the spectrum and might play into the whole sensory processing thing. My son still likes spinning things, but not as much as he used to. He has always liked music and has an amazing ear for pitch. Even when he’s reciting the lines from his favorite movies, he doesn’t always repeat the words being said (will substitute with dah dah dah) but the inflection, voice tenor and everything else is exactly like the lines are delivered in the movie. I’d love to get my son into music therapy or music lessons even, but that is outside of my financial capabilities right now. His father, my partner, also has an ear for music. It isn’t lyrics they like, in fact they feel lyrics detract from the music. Their favorite is techno music and drum and bass.

    • Lara, this is really fascinating. It makes me wonder if some of the kids I’ve seen who hold an object close to their face and then move it are “hearing” it.
      My daughter is very similar to your son in that she will sing songs with absolutely perfect pitch, even when not articulating the words, which she’ll fill in, we know what song she’s singing.

  8. I actually just recently confirmed what I suspected since she was 2, that my 3 year old Autistic daughter see’s letters and numbers as different colors and that they definitely have personalities too. I also suspect she see’s music in color too and has perfect pitch but am not totally sure of that part yet. I don’t have any cool sensory skills like that but I have always been able to walk in the room and feel emotion or particularly sadness in someone without them even looking at me. It’s weird.

  9. A great book on synesthesia is “Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens.” I am a synesthete; I have colored letters and (to a lesser extent) colored numbers. I have other synesthetic experiences as well. Please note that the boy who could read music simply by looking at the colors he associated with the notes is a bit unusual; synesthesia does not always work backwards like that. I see letters with colors, but when I see color alone I don’t think of letters.

    An important thing is that synesthesia is not as weird than it sounds. When I first heard of synesthesia, it sounded literally crazy. I didn’t recognize myself in the description at all. There are different kinds of synesthesia, but in my case…Let me try an analogy. I think anyone, even non-auditory thinkers, can understand the idea that letters have sounds; “what does A say?” we ask children. For me, letters have colors the same way they have sounds. It’s not a hallucination; looking at these words I’m writing, I can tell they are all grey. I can also tell they are silent. But when I look at these grey marks, the sounds and meanings of English come into my head–and so do the colors of the letters.

    Personally, I think the standard description, that synesthesia is a mixing of the senses, is wrong. After all, colored letter/colored number is the most common form of synesthesia, and what mixing is involved in that? But for a visual thinker, it is impossible to think of a letter without visualizing it, and it is impossible to visualize something without a color. I don’t mean that all visual thinkers are synesthetes, and I doubt that all synesthetes who use color are as visual in their thinking as I am, but I suspect that synesthesia is in fact NOT a mixing of the senses at all, but the use of sensory impressions in thinking–my thoughts are made out of images and feelings, mostly. Someone else might think mostly in sounds, or even pure concepts. I’ve been told that this theory of mine just reflects my particular form of synesthesia, but I doubt it. After all, it doesn’t FEEL like my colors and other impressions are just my thoughts. I came up with this idea after much consideration…and I think now that what happens is a synesthete tells a normal person about her experiences (most of us are female, though I know at least two male synesthetes), and the normal person thinks “oh, wow! That’s so strange! Your senses must be mixed together!” And the synesthete, who hasn’t ever thought about it before, says “I guess so.” But it’s not strange. It’s just a way of thinking. That is what I’m trying to say.

  10. Hello Ariane, and everyone who might get this comment as a followup! I have LOVED reading this post, and also the many awesome comments from people that truly understand synesthesia and music-related sensory processing. I kinda feel like I really have nothing to add – I just feel like cheerleading!!!!!
    Being a pianist since I was a few months old (seriously, my mom would sit with me at the piano and let me explore, she says I was extremely musically sensitive even as a baby), being a music educator, being a music therapist, being an autistic ally and Neurodiversity advocate…. these are all things that brought me to my brainchild, The Musical Autist. (thanks for posting the link Paula!)
    I want to connect with, advocate for, and relentlessly cheerlead for “musical autists” everywhere. The way I define a musical autist is someone who’s on the spectrum that simply *likes* music, simple as that. I don’t think it’s right to focus only on savants, like the media does. But I also absolutely LOVE learning from autistic people who have perfect pitch, synesthesia, etc, who are willing to share their stories and thoughts with me. I remember seeing Derek Paravicini, who is only a few years younger than me, on an evening TV show when I was kid. I was soooo jealous at what he could play, and thought “no fair, he can just sit down and play it after listening ONCE, and I practice constantly!” Ever since then, I’ve had such a love and respect for for autistic musicians. It’s my life’s work and passion to keep doing what I’m doing, developing Sensory Friendly Concerts, advocating for Neurodiversity in the professional field of music therapy, etc.
    If anyone is interested in writing a guest blog post for The Musical Autist, please let me know, I would love it!
    Or just even write me to chit chat.
    Yours truly,

  11. I also found out about my synesthesia from reading a book, in which it described people who see colors with numbers as having this condition. It threw me for a loop and I Google’d it immediately. It changed my life so profoundly that I wound up creating my blog/website BlendedSenses, which I put up to help spread the word on this condition and get others informed. It felt like I was in the dark for two and a half decades! Thanks for continuing to spread the word! Misty

  12. Pingback: The Musical Autist Celebrates 1000 Ausome Things: and 2 in particular, Absolute Pitch and Synesthesia #AutismPositivity2013 | Autism Positivity Day Flash Blog

  13. Pingback: When Impairments Are Accommodated – Huffington Post | Air World News

  14. I wonder if you might find new insight with your sensory abilities in the ASMR community, here

  15. I watched a Ted Ed video about synesthesia. It said that everyone has it as babies, but most people lose it. However, a small minority of the population doesn’t.

  16. Yes I see emotions in color or more specifically I see people’s auras. When I walk into a room I get a like breeze that hits me if their feelings and I see colors around people this is the way I know which people I can trust it’s hard to explain but I hope this helps

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