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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

What is Synesthesia?

A friend of mine recently wrote, “My daughter just explained to me that she is a picky eater because foods (and other things) taste like colors and sometimes she doesn’t want to eat that color. Is this a form of synesthesia?”   Yes, it is.

What is it?

Synesthesia is a subjective, secondary, involuntary sensation that is different from an actual stimulus. For example, a stimulus such as music may be perceived as color, or vice versa.

In grapheme-color synaesthesia, letters or numbers are seen as possessing colors; and in lexical-gustatory synesthesia, words or parts of words cause taste sensations in the mouth.

A person who experiences synesthesia is called a synesthete. Some synesthetes have connections and associations among all five senses – seven senses if we include vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (spatial awareness and movement) senses.

Sometimes sensory or cognitive input can be interpreted as emotion or mood. But synesthesia may be unpleasant: a woman in my extended family once told me that she suffers physical pain every time she looks at another person’s face.

Why does this happen? What does it mean?

Synesthesia seems to run in families, and it seems to be more common in individuals with neurological conditions such as autism, seizure disorders or brain trauma. Some synesthetes excel in the arts. The painter Wassily Kandinsky (that’s his painting above) is famous for his abstract paintings of music. The composer Olivier Messiaen developed a new type of musical composition, which he called ”the modes of limited transposition,” specifically so that he could convey his sound-color synesthesia with accuracy.

Some synesthetes are more aware of their gift than others, which brings me back to my friend’s original dilemma. Her daughter is finally able to verbalize the sensations that cause her picky eating habits. How can my friend navigate the synesthesia while encouraging her daughter to try different foods and sensations?

In my personal experience, I have noticed that sharing experiences of synesthesia helps individuals become more comfortable with this gift, and explore appropriate outlets for synesthesia. When I was a kid, my mother told me stories about artists, musicians and scientists who had unusual ways of thinking and perceiving. She encouraged me to draw while listening to classical music and to consider possible associations among the senses.

Different Like Me

Now my son and I are reading the book, “Different Like Me: My Book of Autism Heroes” by Jennifer Elder and Marc Thomas. This book contains brief biographies of historical and contemporary individuals who made remarkable contributions to society as a direct result of their autistic personality features. Wassily Kandinsky is in the book, with a simple and excellent description of his synesthesia. Others in the book, who are not necessarily synesthetes, are Albert Einstein, Temple Grandin, Julia Bowman Robinson, Benjamin Banneker and my favorite, Andy Warhol.

A child with emerging verbal skills may not be able to explain his behavior in terms of synesthesia. I was surprised one day when my son told me that his annoying behavior was an attempt to experience emotion through touch – it was an epiphany for us both. I captured the moment in this short poem. I think that a little bit of compassion goes a long way in understanding synesthesia.

When I Touch Your Face

“Hands down,” I say. But he persists:
Grabbing my face as I sign school papers,
Poking my eye while I cook breakfast,
Rubbing his cheek on mine, laughing
Hysterically when I feed his brother,
Sneaking up and yanking my hair,
Always turning me toward himself.
“Hands down,” I say. He pleads,
“When I touch your face, I feel love.”
Gently cupping my face, he studies me,
Breathes me in, tilts back his head
And closes his eyes in ecstasy.


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Karen Wang

Written on November 14, 2011 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"
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