Synesthesia on the Spectrum




When listening to music, does a certain color ever pop into the back of your mind? Do you associate numbers with certain hues? Or better yet, do you “hear colors” and “taste sounds”? If so, then it is more than likely that you have synesthesia, which, defined simply, is the intertwining of one or more senses.

I see pink grapefruit and pink-orange sunset hues when I hear the key of D major. My experience with synesthesia has mainly been associated with music. The first time I had an experience with this particular color I was listening to a section of a Mozart divertimento as a toddler. I still think of that color when I hear that section. Another very strong, more recent synesthetic experience occurred about three years ago when listening to the closing section of the finale of Mahler’s first symphony. I remember seeing a very sunset-like image full of giant clouds, with a color scheme that was virtually identical to the color associated with Mozart’s divertimento. Although I most likely imagined the sunset because I was looking at the aftermath of a pretty gnarly summer evening thunderstorm, it is important to note that I still associate that section of Mahler’s First with that color.


Have you ever imagined the days of the week being dynamic, complex things? I ask this  because the days of the week have both a specific color and texture. By this, I mean that Sunday and Monday are a deep yellow with a grainy and speckly texture. Tuesday is a deep tone of blue with a smooth texture. Wednesday and Friday are white with a somewhat bumpy texture. Thursday is a deep greyish green with a rough texture, and Saturday is a tone of red with a somewhat streaky texture, similar to the brushstrokes on a canvas painting. To me, Sunday and Monday have the best color and texture, despite Fridays and Saturdays being my favorite day. Thursday has both the worst color and texture. Apart from musical keys, I also strongly associate the days of the week, as well as numbers, with colors.

But what exactly causes synesthesia to appear in a person, and is it in some way or another related to autism? As I expected, the answers to these questions are related. According to a fairly recent article from Science Daily, a link has been found between the symptoms of autism and synesthesia.The article states that a study conducted by experts from the University of Cambridge and the University of Sussex found that both autistic people and synesthetes experience very similarly heightened senses. Besides that, two prior studies had actually found an increased prevalence of synesthesia in autistic subjects. Even more interesting is that the most recent study showed that both autistic people and synesthetes have aversions to certain sounds and lights, and that they have similar attentions to detail.

The only major difference between the synesthetes and the autistics in the study was that the synesthetes did not share the social difficulties that the autistics had. This finding is not surprising since difficulty with social situations is a known trait of autism. From this study, I have concluded that while synesthesia and autism are separate neurological conditions, synesthesia can often be seen as a symptom of autism (mainly higher functioning variants). This, to me, is likely due to the fact that autism in general is a much more complex and comprehensive neurological condition. As it would turn out, many well-known figures in the field of the arts have or have had synesthesia. This group includes, but is not limited to, actor Geoffrey Rush, composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin, composer and pianist Franz Liszt, jazz musician Duke Ellington, and singer Billy Joel.


Superhuman abilities have for a long time been something that people take interest in. You see kids dressed up as their favorite superheroes, as well as teens and adults going to see the latest superhero blockbuster. To me, one of the closest things to a superpower that is possible to have is synesthesia. In other words, synesthetes are, in many ways, superhuman.

John Wise