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Ideasthesia vs. Synesthesia vs. Autism – Is Ideasthesia Less Common in Autism?



Ideasthesia is often regarded as a more accurate term for Synesthesia. The name means “sensing concepts” or “sensing ideas” in Greek. The term was proposed by Dr. Danko Nikolić in 2009 and has brought out one of the most fundamental cognitive elements of Synesthesia, i.e., conceptuality.

I summarise the difference between Ideasthesia and Synesthesia as follows:

-                           Ideasthesia                     Synesthesia

Inducer              Concept                           Sensory
Concurrent       Sensory                            Sensory
Phenomenon    Semantic -> Sensory     Sensory -> Sensory

Over the last few weeks, I have been documenting many synesthesia types experienced by my family in the preparation of my first family memoir. I have noticed that almost all synesthetic perceptions were associated with concepts, and almost every synesthesia type was developed subconsciously due to the aided ability to Brian’s conceptualisation.

I have also observed the direct correlation between the degree of complexity of a synesthetic perception and the level of sophistication of a synesthete’s mind. In other words, the more complex a synesthetic perception is, the more information a mind is capable to hold, the more sophisticated a synesthete’s mind is, and the deeper one can reach the inner world and explore an uncommonly aware territory.

Recently, my younger son Thomas amazed me by sharing the reason behind his reverse colour synesthesia. This synesthesia was triggered by an event when he was two. The event has since deeply impacted on his perception. In his little mind, he realised that there always would be something bright on the dark side. Similarly, there always would be something dark on the bright side. Life might not be what it appeared to be, he should always try to look from an opposite perspective. How he looked at things depended on his own perception.

Since two, he has paired two colours as opposite colours, one he liked and one he did not like such as black vs. white, brown vs. yellow, green vs. blue, pink vs. purple. He also noticed that the colour he did not like appear more often or was more common than the opposite colour, e.g., most books were printed in black, but he liked white much more; green could be seen everywhere he went, but blue was his favourite. He developed his reverse colour synesthesia to make himself see colours he liked far more often than he otherwise could see.

If Thomas reads a book, his reverse colour synesthesia often turns the white page in black and black printed words in white so that he reads words in the colour he loves. When he plays cricket or watches a cricket match, he sees green ground in blue.

The understanding of Ideasthesia being the real phenomenon behind most synesthetic perception not only advances human knowledge in cognitive traits associated with Synesthesia, but also hopefully makes scientists realise the distinct differences between ideasthesia and autism: -

1. One of the common difficulties associated with people who have autism is to conceptualise or to comprehend an abstract concept. On contrary, conceptual and abstract thinking is one of the common strengths amongst synesthetes.
2. Another noticeable difference between those two groups is intuition. Synesthetes are usually highly intuitive whereas intuition is generally lacking in people who have autism.

I would like to take one step further, and hypothesise that the overlapping between the ideasthesia population and the autism population should be minimum. Putting it differently, ideasthesia should be very uncommon in autism. I have illustrated my hypothesis in the attached diagram.

If the above hypothesis can be proved true one day, it will lead to a bigger question, i.e., is synaesthesia less common in autism? My view is YES!

I think some scientists, especially those who have research background in autism, have been over emphasising the sensory part of synesthesia, and have been overly keen to make a ground breaking finding between those two neurological conditions without truly understanding or deliberately overlooking the key differences.

Of course, I am not saying that there is no shared characteristic between those two groups. There are only a certain number of categories to classify human beings and it all depends on how authorities classify us, e.g., by gender, by race, by age, by education. There’s no doubt that there are some shared characteristics across two classified groups, e.g., a tall male wearing glasses and a tall female wearing glasses; a fair skinned Asian and a fair skinned European; a young looking energetic 60-year-old man and an energetic 30-year-old man. The same happens to synesthesia and autism.

If definitions and classifications are too broad and every person fits in one size, then it is the time for the authority to introduce a new category so that we do not confuse one group from another, even though one differs so obviously from the other.

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