It’s Autism Awareness Month and although I am not Autistic, I am technically on the spectrum, having ADD and Synaesthesia. So in support of greater awareness, I am making a little post here about what it’s like to have Synaesthesia. I’m sure you’re all aware of ADD/ADHD 🙂
What it is: Synaesthesia is a neurological condition. For those of us who have it, our brains make what researchers consider to be “inappropriate correspondences” between things. For example, maybe some folks think that the number 7 is sky blue and friendly. There are different forms of synaesthesia. I have chromesthesia. When I hear sounds, I see colours. There is actually more to my synaesthesia than just this, but chromesthesia is the most commonly known one.
- We aren’t crazy. It’s hard to tell people that you see the colour green or smell hydraulic fluid when the next door neighbor speaks and not come off as more than a little bit strange. Or that you taste grapefruit in your mouth when you smell a daisy. When I was small, my favourite things to do were drawing and colouring. I especially loved making coloured patches on paper with my crayons and then covering it with black, and etching the drawing out of that. The swirls of changing colours in the lines of my drawing reminded me of the colour displays that I saw constantly. Although I expressed my synaesthesia through art while growing up, I never mentioned it directly. I just assumed that everyone saw this way. In junior high I learned that I was unique when I made a remark about the pink cloud that appeared when my science teacher spoke. One of my classmates looked at me and said “Are you on f***ing mushrooms?” A week later I took a chance and asked a friend if she could see the noises that the birds were making. “Ummm, Nicole, you can’t see noises. God you’re weird sometimes.” Oooookay. Shutting up now.
- We aren’t suffering. I hate hearing that. I don’t “suffer” from anything. I’m quite happy. Yes, it’s overwhelming sometimes, but I can assure you that I am in no way suffering. It took me a while to accept this, but I’m quite pleased with who I am. I’ve only ever known one other synaesthete, but I’m pretty certain that the bulk of us are not suffering. I enjoy having an enhanced sense of perception. I was kind of hoping that my son would have it, since his biological father is the only other synaesthete that I’ve ever known, but apparently two synaesthetes don’t make little synaesthetes.
- We can get overwhelmed easily. For me, a conversation, music, noises in general produce a full-throttle sensory experience. Your voice produces colours. I will smell it and taste it as well. Your conversation will make my skin tingle like someone is spreading baby powder on me. For me, music intensifies everything. In small scale settings this is quite manageable. However, big events like trade shows and awards dinners, or places like the mall at Christmastime or Sunday afternoon at Costco – hundreds of people giving me the same experience that a few of you do – not so shit hot. Likewise for dance clubs and techno bars. Fifteen minutes in a crowded dance bar gets me more than a little wound up. I’m an introvert by necessity. I require solitude to decompress from the overstimulation. When I was little I was written off as being overly emotional because no one knew what was going on. My quality of life does not suffer – I’m not a bar person, thankfully, and I get my groceries on Monday morning when it’s just me and the old ladies. Fire drills? Road work? Don’t get me started. I make adjustments for things because I know my limitations.
- We are not stereotypes. It is commonly believed that all synaesthetes are autistic/ADHD, extremely artistic, left handed, and terrible at math. This is not true…..says the left-handed fibre artist with ADD who barely made it through math. But it’s not true!!! According to researchers there are right handed, non-creative individuals who don’t pick butterflies out of the air, got straight A’s in math, AND they are synaesthetes, too. They insist on this. OK?
- We may have some strange coping methods. Don’t judge. I find the greatest tranquility comes from military style physical training and meditation. Many of us discover in adolescence that alcohol can make synaesthesia go away temporarily – or at the very least become dull. BUT becoming an alcoholic is not a coping strategy that I recommend. At the end of the day, after being bombarded with a truckload of sensory information, I put on my ear buds and allow myself about 30 minutes of full on immersion. I fall into lala land with a playlist of artists whose work I find helps me to unwind. I listen to a lot of Max Richter, Anna Von Hausswolff, Olafur Arnalds, and Sebastian Bach. My favourite, hands down. is Sebastian. Most of you know who he is. His voice flows like water in the air. If you’re only familiar with his work in heavy metal then you’re missing out. Max Richter’s work is used in a lot of movies. You probably know his music without realizing it. My favourite album is currently the Disconnect soundtrack. Anna Von Hausswolff is absolutely brilliant. I like to play her a lot when I’m designing crochet pieces. Her songs hang in the air like the Northern Lights. If she ever comes to Winnipeg, I am so camping out for tickets. Olafur Arnalds I’ve only discovered recently, but the music of his that I have on my phone causes me to see snow falling and to smell cinnamon rolls. <– I don’t get to pick what I experience but damn, you have to love a man whose music makes you smell baked goods!!