Autism and Synesthesia. Can you hear colors and taste certain music too?
Synesthesia, a sensory processing disorder that results in mixed sensory perceptions (i.e. “seeing” colors or “tasting” music), affects up to 20% of people with autism, according to a report this month by professors Tessa Van Leeuwen and Rob van Lier at Radboud University.
Van Leeuwen and Van Lier noted that researchers have found an overlap between synesthesia and autism, those with synesthesia (“synesthetes”) experience certain sensory and attention differences, much like people on the autism spectrum. Disruptions to sensory processing are a well-known facet of autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is characterized by extreme sensitivity to touch and sound.
As the authors explained, several studies have been conducted using a questionnaire called the Autism Quotient to assess autism traits, such as communication problems or enhanced attention to detail in people with synesthesia. Studies found that synesthetes scored higher than people without synesthesia on measures of attention to detail, though their scores on social and communication skills varied. Synesthetes also scored high on the Glasgow Sensory Questionnaire, which evaluates sensitivity to sensory stimulation. The studies’ findings suggest that synesthesia and autism overlap in perceptual and sensory areas more than social ones. Researchers have also found it is likely that the more types of synesthesia a person has, the higher they will score on tests of autism traits.
“To develop treatments for sensory issues in autism, we need to identify autistic synesthetes and study them,” Van Leeuwen and Van Lier concluded. “Spreading the word that synesthesia is relatively common in autism may empower more autistic people to self-identify as synesthetes. All people with autism who can do so should take a synesthesia test online to better understand their own sensory issues and abilities. Growing knowledge of this overlap is likely to lead to insights that could improve the lives of autistic people, whether or not they experience a crossing of their senses.”