When researcher Baron Cohen and his colleagues professed that synesthesia is more common (three times greater) in autism, many new questions surfaced for the curious parent. Another team of researchers used their study results to conclude that autistic individuals did not have a dysfunctional mirror neuron system. In this case, participants with autism could successfully mimic facial expressions, although they had difficulty understanding complex emotions.
That brings up the question: What is synesthesia and what is the mirror-neuron dysfunction view? In the first part of the article, you will understand why mirror-neuron dysfunction may not be the cause behind autistic traits. On the contrary, the phenomenon underlying most autism mechanisms from perception to social connectedness may stem from synesthesia. The second half of the article discusses how to resolve synesthetic experiences.
Current research on mirror neurons, synesthesia, and autism
What do scientists know about mirror neurons and autism?
Mirror neurons were discovered decades ago and relate to social interaction. They fire when we see others doing actions in the same way they would if we were doing that specific action. Social deficits in autism were linked to a dysfunction in the mirror-neuron system for quite some time. However, recent research suggests something else. In the research mentioned above that refutes the possibility of mirror-neuron dysfunction in autism, teenage boys with autism were able to spontaneously mimic facial expressions. Instead, scientists suggested they may not have been actively pursuing social relationships due to a lack of motivation for creating social bonds.
How can we explain synesthesia?
Synesthesia happens when senses merge to produce a complex experience. To elaborate, an individual may perceive the letter “I” as red. Looking at the activity inside the brain, it so happens that an attempt to decipher “I” triggers the perception of the “red” color. The latter perception is involuntary. Synesthesia may extend to complex interactions in the brain engaging the five senses and may lead to overwhelming multidimensional experiences evoking fascinating experiences at certain times and painful sensations in other instances.
What has recent research revealed about synesthesia and autism?
Researchers have suggested that mirror neurons could be linked to synesthesia. In their recent study, they provided evidence linking mirror neurons as a possible cause behind mirror-touch synesthesia experiences. Several theories are now questionable and scientists are trying to find how autism may be linked to synesthesia as it may provide several implications for daily function, social bonding, withdrawal, and other confusing behaviors. Mirror neurons precisely translate “sensory information into motor actions”.
Synesthesia and autism have several commonalities such as “sensory sensitivity” and “altered sensory perception”. To understand this “mixing of senses” in the autistic group, scientists experimented with people reporting one or more forms of synesthesia (sequence-space synesthesia, graphene-color synesthesia, and others) and used several scales to measure a correlation. Their results revealed synesthetes shared many characteristics with autism (attention to detail, unusual sensitivity), suggesting they could share similar neural mechanisms, such as concerning processing color and doing visual tasks.
What are our key takeaways so far?
All this confirms synesthesia may occur more often than expected in autism, probably because neurons function the same way in both conditions. Clinicians may at some point consider synesthesia as a potential clue to diagnosing autism. In another sense, understanding synesthesia in autism may help us understand “sensory symptoms”. This may help people on the spectrum achieve an improved quality of life.
Children with autism may often feel overwhelmed and experience sensory overload when going through synesthetic experiences. While such instances may seem “overwhelming” on the periphery, you will eventually achieve success, carving a unique strategy to productively live through the experience. A few tested methods will help you successfully recognize and resolve synesthetic experiences.
Recognizing common behaviors triggered by synesthesia
Most parents might not even be aware of the synesthetic experience in their child. Bogdashina, in her account of Synaesthesia in Autism, enlightens readers through several first-hand vivid experiences.
Individuals with asperger’s syndrome may have a unique perception of words and letters:
“…‘at’ is a red word, but add the letter T to make ‘that’, the word’s colour is now orange. Not all words fit the initial letter pattern: words beginning with the letter A, for example, are always red and those beginning with W are always dark blue,” (Tammet 2006).
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People with autism and synesthesia may experience sensory overload, which may show up as either panic or aggression:
“In the shop I heard black, then the word broke down into pieces and they entered my eye. I became blind because everything was black.” (Alex, an autistic child)
Beyond the mixing of senses, certain individuals are able to experience the pain of others—a condition often referred to as “synesthesia for pain”. Dr. Joel Salinas, who perceived the “bell ringing in blue and yellow” in primary school is now able to feel the pain of his patients as if it were his own:
“I saw them getting chest compressions and I could feel my back on the linoleum floor and the compressions on my own chest. I felt the breathing tube scraping down the back of my throat.”
When the patient was declared dead 30 minutes later Salinas experienced an “eerie silence”. (BBC Story)
Clearly, the synesthesia is beyond altered perception and goes into lesser-known mechanisms of the mind and body, also affecting behavior.
Understanding and resolving the synesthetic overwhelm
There are several ways a parent can gain an understanding of this situation and facilitate a conducive environment for the child while paving the way for good social connectedness.
Ways to “detox” from synesthesia
In most cases, there are certainly ways to help your child feel less “overloaded” and restore normal body function. Detoxing with natural alternatives helps reduce overall anxiety levels and promotes the optimal function of hormones, nerves, and the gastrointestinal tract. Here are a few aspects to focus on:
- Maintain a relaxing space at all times with sensory toys, different textures, oxygen-giving plants such as aloe vera, and relaxing essential oils
- Diet is a core component of improving overall life quality. Contrary to the popular belief about being gluten-free, scientific evidence now maintains that diets free of casein and gluten may not necessarily improve bowel symptoms in autism. As a parent, you may want to check what suits best for your child and discover evidence from larger studies. Furthermore, scientific evidence supports the fact the microbiota of the gastrointestinal tract is affected by your choice of diet, implying autism symptoms may be affected and possibly resolved with the right dietary intervention
- Eliminate the use of chemical-based household cleaning agents that may cause potential harm. Eco-friendly and all-natural cleaners such as aromatic vinegar often turn out to be the best choices of cleaning agents
- Engage your child in the most preferred activities throughout the day (reading by the window, swinging on a spandex hammock, role play, puppet show, art wall, etc.)
Techniques for better social connectedness
Parents may be starting points for the child to explore the environment around him/her. There are proven techniques that may help your child understand the purpose of “bonding” and know how to stretch a little to achieve better social connections.
Stanley Greenspan recommends one of the most winning techniques to assist the child in not just communicating but also in learning. Parents can learn the “Greenspan Floortime” technique to be familiar with ways to draw the child’s attention by “getting on the floor”.
Therefore, it is important to understand how synesthesia may translate to alter the function of key human systems such as the nervous system and the endocrine system, disrupting stability in key physiological processes. Sometimes, it may be too overwhelming and cause major disruption in social function. Being able to recognize its occurrences and find solutions helps keep your child motivated to participate in social interactions and learning opportunities.
NCBI Journal Article: Mirror neurons: Enigma of the metaphysical modular brain
National Autistic Society Article: Synaesthesia in Autism
Green Living Blog: How to Make Your Own Aromatic Vinegar
BBC Story: The doctor who really feels his patients’ pain
This article was featured in Issue 113 – Transitioning to Adulthood