When some researchers first learnt that Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant, had synaesthesia as well, they got quite excited as for some reason, from one extreme example, the researchers felt that they were more and more convinced that there could be a correlation between autism and synaesthesia. Since then, to prove this hypothesis almost has become a compulsion.
In November 2013, a journal, “Is synaesthesia more common in autism?” (Baron-Cohen, Simon, et al. 2013), was published. The University of Cambridge’s website and many other websites simply changed the title question to a statement, i.e., “Synaesthesia is more common in autism”. It says: “The scientists tested – and confirmed – the prediction that if both autism and synaesthesia involve neural over-connectivity, then synaesthesia might be disproportionately common in autism.”
Is it really true? As a person who knows quite a few synaesthetes in the family and at work, and who does not have any autistic family member in the extended family, I feel nothing but confusion.
However, science is science. If those leading scientists really did their homework, presented their evidence, and the media and publishers all made such a big statement, I certainly should respect their findings.
So I decided to have a good read of the published journal to satisfy my own curiosity, or perhaps concern. What I have discovered was nothing but more confusion.
The results of the study were based on a group of participants. “In total, 172 adults with autism and 123 typical adults responded and gave electronic consent. These are the subset of those who responded from an email sent to 927 adults with autism and 1,364 typical adults.”
Let’s have a look at those participant characteristics a bit more. 60.2% of those participants with autism attended universities … What??? I was racing through my head. How could this be the case? We all know in reality, there is only a very small percentage of autistic people who are tertiary qualified. 60.2%? That is even higher than that of the general population!
The sample bias is understandable. To make the study easier, participates had to be able to communicate, read and write. This meant that recruiting and testing people at the low to middle autism spectrum for synaesthesia was not feasible. Unsurprisingly, the journal stated several limitations at the end.
However, we only know too well if something gets published these days, a headline is enough to attract people’s attention, and draw conclusions.
This research paper, instead, has made me think more and more about the relationship between synaesthesia and giftedness. There seems to be a cluster of highly educated autistic synaesthetes at the top end of the autism spectrum.
After reading the journal in detail, I could only express my concern and reservation. There are so many facets of synaesthesia. Some, such as mirror-touch or personification, are no doubt to be quite opposite to the classical characteristics of autism. I can only hope that synaesthesia research will become more and more robust in future.