Synaesthesia Discovery

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Synaesthesia, Learning and School Life

In recent years, some educators started taking notice of the needs of synaesthetic children at school. It is becoming more evident that those children may have quite different learning styles, and the traditional teaching method may not be the most effective way to deliver a class to them.

UK and Canada are two of the leading countries in synaesthesia research. They are also leading the development of synaesthetic teaching materials and methods. However, there are divided views of whether or not synaesthetes should be treated differently from the rest of the school population, as synaesthesia is neither a mental disorder, nor noticeably hinders a synaesthete’s learning. Some critics believe that by catering specially for this small group of students may adversely affect their resilience later on. Furthermore, with the current low awareness of this neurological trait, some synaesthetes still find it difficult to openly talk about their seemingly unusual perception, let alone want to be treated differently.

My personal view is that if there is a better way to enable any individual’s (synaesthete’s or non-synaesthete’s) learning, it should be a positive thing. Education is such an important part of a child’s life, yet it sometimes can be so hard to find the right environment. The challenge is even more significant to those who are at the two ends of the overall spectrum.

My husband and I have had our fair share of the challenges in bringing up our boys, and finding the right teaching method and schools for children. Our challenges were not caused by our children’s in-depth synaesthesia, but caused by the existing public education system not adequately catering for gifted children. You can find many wonderful teachers working at public schools, but with the resource shortage and lack of knowledge in gifted education, the support and the education quality that those children receive are often compromised.

After a long holiday, Skye and Thomas started at their respective new schools last week. It has been a fanatic week for us, but I am pleased to see what a difference the new schools, both are private schools, have already made to their lives. The mental stimulation from the classroom environment and the school community in general are making their new learning experience very exciting. Both Skye and Thomas are embracing their new school life in full. I know it is only at the beginning, but so far we find the change rewarding.

Now back to the topic of Synaesthesia, Learning and School Life, if we use the published synaesthesia prevelence rate of 4% for a quick calculation, it is very likely that each class at any school has one synaesthete student. To this particular child, he or she may feel alone in the class, but to the child’s teachers, it can be a quite different story assuming those teachers encounter synaesthetic students year after year. Therefore, equipping teachers, in both public and private systems, with great knowledge in identifying and supporting children with synaesthesia, just like the knowledge they require to identify children with profound giftedness, moderate giftedness, ADHD, and learning disabilities, are essential for the success of those children’s education.

During Skye’s first English lesson this term, his classroom teacher opened up a discussion of strategies required of spelling unknown words. She asked students what three important strategies, each starting with letter ‘S’, could be. Skye naturally thought about Synaesthesia as it had been one of his most important strategies since a toddler, but he quickly discounted this answer as a possibility in his mind and replaced it as “Sight” which did please the teacher. The answers the teacher was looking for were: -

Sounding out

The teacher then introduced the world’s longest word, i.e., Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, and applied those three strategies to show students how to learn to spell a very long word.

Skye agrees that both sounding out and syllable have been fantastic and frequently used strategies for him. His synaesthesia adds an extra strength to the strategy of Sight. For this 45-letter word, he sees different colours in one or multiple syllables. This helps him remember the spelling within no time. Here are the colours that he sees in this long word:

Pnue: green with a tiny bit of yellow
Mono: no colour
Ultra: a mixture of red and yellow
Microscopic: a bright yellow
Silico: a different type of yellow, like cheese yellow
Volcano: same as “ultra” (the word “Volcano” on its own has the same colour mixture)
Coniosis: green

My favourite story of his learning of spelling is the Tsunami story that I wrote in one of my earliest blogs “Visible or Invisible“. Skye used to think ‘Tsunami’ was spelt as ‘Soonarmy’. One day, his classmate called out, ‘Skye, come to see Tornado’. He immediately saw every word in front of him due to his ticker-tape synaesthesia. Then all of a sudden, he saw the word ‘Tsunami’ appearing next to ‘Tornado’. He looked it a bit closer and said to himself, “oh, that’s how I should spell Tsunami, it should start with T”. He also used the spelling of “na” in “Tornado” to self correct his old spelling of “nar” in “Soonarmy”.

Each day, many synaesthetic children use their own creativity, strategies and methods navigating this world. Learning and school life are no exception. Some strategies and methods work better for them whereas others do not, just like different methods used by non-synaesthetic children. For educators, understanding those children and supporting their unique ways of learning alone is a big step forward to bridge the gap.

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