My Daughter on the Autism Spectrum Can Hear and Think in Colors
Grace is a colorful individual. She has always been one to flourish from coloring outside the lines. She is quite adept at creating colorful new worlds, resplendent with pink trees and rolling, purple-hued hills. She has progressed from creating these imaginative worlds in a coloring book fairly instantaneously, to spending weeks creating them in her graphic design classes. These places have names, residents, and very complete and colorful histories. In short, they are fascinating places created in an amazing mind.
I recently discovered that Grace’s mind is even more colorful than previously considered. She appears to have some form of synesthesia. This means her senses often overlap somewhat. She may hear sounds while perceiving certain colors simultaneously, and see numbers and letters with colors (2 is always a particular shade of red, whereas the letter R is always seen with a hue of blue).
When she hears music, the tunes and notes take on certain colorful patterns. She does not have the innate ability to separate all of her senses. Can you image hearing in colors? It is a fascinating gift!
In reality, I realize that this inability to tone down and separate the senses can be anxiety provoking and exhausting. Grace experiences every single sound at similar volume levels. Her brain cannot tune out ambient sound in favor of an ongoing conversation, etc. that she should be focusing on. It makes everyday excursions, such as eating in a restaurant, shopping, etc. feel like hard work.
Perhaps being able to transfer sounds to a sensation of color is some sort of involuntary calming mechanism to help her focus on something besides all of the constant noise. If so, isn’t that ingenious?
Grace seems to wonder if my own life is somewhat bland, since I don’t experience colors in the same capacity as she. I can hear her stating, in her usual impromptu manner, “Mom, I’m so sorry. I wish you could see and feel all of my colors.”
My reply is equally instantaneous, flowing from my lips with no need for reflection or thought, “ Grace, you need have no fear. Your colors shine so brightly that I experience them with you constantly.”
The remainder of my response is not orally voiced, but heartfelt — deeply and passionately.
I reflect on one of the innumerable instances in Grace’s life in which she has been excluded from a simple social experience that would have made her day; her week (possibly her life) feel better.
One day at school a classmate, whom Grace adores and considers one of her friends, celebrated a special event with other classmates at a nearby table. There was cake and laughter and singing, and I could tell Grace longed to be a part of that gathering. There were no invitations to join in, share a slice of cake, etc. so Grace did the best she could to wish her friend well. She told me she enjoyed watching her friends having fun. She said that seeing them happy and enjoying each other filled her with joy. She even watched from her self-delighted delegated area outside the table of classmates as they began to sing a celebratory song. Grace shared with me how she whispered the tune along with them so as not to disturb anyone, because it made her feel that she was also able to wish her friend well. It was as close as she could get to feeling included.
“Mom, I sang and I prayed for her to have the best day ever, even though I know she couldn’t hear me.” (Yet, you wonder if I can see your colors.)
Oh, my dear Gracie girl — I see such remarkable colors emanating from your unique spirit and soul every moment of the day, and I thank God for the gifts he has bestowed upon you. You never need fear that I don’t see your colors. They shine brightly in your loved ones’ hearts and (rest assured) they will help illuminate the dark corners of this world as you pass through.
Getty image by Benjavisa