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Autism Often Accompanied By ‘Mixing Of The Senses’


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Many with autism also experience a condition that causes unusual sensory triggers, a new study indicates, such that hearing music or seeing a color may conjure a taste or a smell.

The condition known as synaesthesia involves people experiencing a “mixing of the senses.” Researchers report that it’s nearly three times as common in people with autism compared to those without.

The finding — which the study authors said came as a surprise — offers new clues to understanding the biology of autism and the experiences of many with the developmental disorder.

“I have studied both autism and synaesthesia for over 25 years and I had assumed that one had nothing to do with the other,” said Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge, who led the study published Wednesday in the journal Molecular Autism. “These findings will re-focus research to examine common factors that drive brain development in these traditionally very separate conditions.”

For the study, 164 adults with autism and 97 without were screened for synaesthesia. Nearly 19 percent of those with autism and about 7 percent of the typically-developing individuals had the condition.

With synaesthesia, there are atypical connections in the brain linking areas that are not generally related. Much like autism, genes are thought to play a role in the condition but the exact cause is unknown.

Linking the two conditions offers new avenues to explore, the researchers said, in order to better understand how the brain develops and loses connections.

More immediately, however, understanding how common synaesthesia is among those with autism could have a more practical impact.

“People with autism report high levels of sensory hypersensitivity. This new study goes one step further in identifying synaesthesia as a sensory issue that has been overlooked in this population,” said Donielle Johnson, who worked on the study as graduate student at Cambridge. “This has major implications for educators and clinicians designing autism-friendly learning environments.”

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Comments (3 Responses)

  1. Karen Driver says:

    My son is 25 years old and has Cerebral Palsy and undiagnosed Autism . . . I would argue Autism should be his primary diagnosis due to his sensory issues being more of an issue than the CP . . but the CP is significant and what you “see”. When he was younger, if he saw a dog, he would smack his lips and start gagging! I always said it was as though he could “taste” the dog. THANKS for this “confirmation”! Behaviors ARE communication and we must “listen” to children and adults with Autism . . . imagine someone telling us to chew something sour and NOT taste it . . . or listen to extremely loud music right in our ears and not scream for it to stop! We try to change things that are “normal” to people with Autism . . resulting in emotional, verbal and physical abuse to them for things that cannot be helped. That said, yes, therapies are much needed . . just know limits and when to stop great expectations resulting in the torture of the person who simply needs to have some accommodations and alterations to their environment. After years of slowly working on my son’s “tasting” of animals via periodic exposure, we now have dogs in our house without any problems.

  2. Julia says:

    Synesthesia has been statistically “linked” with autism for quite a while now, so I do not understand how SBC can say that he assumed one had nothing to do with the other. I suppose he did not believe it until a study he was involved in confirmed it. Karen D, you sound like an ideal mother for your child. What a great example of really paying close attention to what he experiences and describing it in such a vivid way. I certainly think these confirmations help to understand the “wiring” for many of us; that is helpful in predicting needs for accommodations we may need.

  3. Carla Shao says:

    Mr. Heasley,

    Thank you for providing your insight about this new investigation of the potential correlation between synesthesia and autism. As an undergraduate interested in making meaningful connections with people with disabilities, it is interesting to see the urgency with which scientific findings and growth is being addressed. Given the mysterious and overlooked condition of synesthesia compared to the well-researched autism spectrum, this is a timely post offers an inquiry about these conventionally very separate conditions. Although I commend you for crafting a post with the objective findings of Simon Baron-Cohen’s research, I am concerned about the lack of discussion regarding the limitations and setbacks of the study. Firstly, I advocate that all the tests be administered in the confines of the laboratory setting in order to avoid faulty self-reports. Because the Synesthesia Questionnaire utilized in the study to evaluate whether participants had synesthesia was completed online, this aspect of self-reporting may have contributed to the skewing of data which could have affected and jeopardized the accuracy of the data collected. For instance, it is possible that the rate of autistic adults with synesthesia may be under-estimated in the study due to the fact that some participants with autism believed that they were not synesthetes when in reality experimenters judged them as synesthetes. In the study, these autistic individuals who were also synesthetes were conservatively categorized as autistic non-synesthetes, which invalidate those particular sets of data. In regards to the Test of Genuineness-Revised (ToG-R), the study was not able to compile finished consistency tests to validate the percentage estimates of prevalence data due to participants’ fatigue from having to match the letters with the associated color given 241 possible color choices. Potentially, modifications such as reducing the number of colors and using computerized retests need to be made to prevent incomplete tests. Furthermore, I suggest that establishing and performing a study with a larger sample size would generate a better representation of the population and reduce the influence of outliers and other extraneous variables.

    Extending beyond the bounds of this research study, further exploration about underlying biological causal factors such as neural hyper-connectivity can strengthen the assertion that autism and synesthesia can be linked at multiple levels. With the potential high correlation of comorbidity between synesthesia and autism, the linkage of the two conditions offers new avenues to explore that can construct a more holistic perception of how the brain develops and loses connections. Overall in an education and clinical setting, I agree with researcher Donielle Johnson’s belief that with greater comprehension of the structural and functional differences on a neurological level, a foundation for educators and clinicians who work with autistic children can help to design a friendly learning environment conducive to increasing and improving the learning experience. However, this begs the question: Would similar data surface had the study been performed on children with autism instead of high-functioning adults? The implications of this newfound knowledge can help lead to the development of more effective therapeutic approaches and treatment processes regarding these conditions and disorders for both children and adults. Thank you once again for your contributions and informative post.

    Carla Shao

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