Synesthesia & autistic features in a large family: Evidence for spatial imagery as a common factor

Behav Brain Res. 2019 Apr 19;362:266-272. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2019.01.014. Epub 2019 Jan 9.


Background: Autism and synesthesia are neurodevelopmental conditions associated with variants of perceptual processing. They also share some genetic variants and include a large magnitude of intra-categorical variation: 60 types for synesthesia, as well as a spectrum for autism. In order to investigate the relationship between these two phenomena, we investigated the family of FC, an autistic individual who also possess savant abilities and synesthesia manifestations.

Method: Autistic symptoms were assessed for the entire sample of participants entering the study (39 individuals) using the SRS. Participants above threshold were evaluated with standardized diagnostic tools. Synesthesia was explored in the entire participating sample using a self-reported questionnaire. Consistency tests were used for participants who reported synesthetic manifestations.

Results: In addition to FC, four individuals with ASD were detected. Fifteen participants self-reported synesthesia (15 sequence-space, 4 sound-shape, 4 day-color), among which nine sequence-space synesthetes satisfied the consistency criteria. Two participants possess both autism and synesthesia.

Conclusion: This family illustrates the co-segregation of autism and synesthesia. This co-segregation is in favour of a partially overlapping genetic predisposition for both conditions, but also authorizes a large variety of manifestations in both conditions. The high prevalence of sequence-space synesthesia in this family strengthens the previous assumption that this form of synesthesia may be linked to autism. We discuss the potential role of spatial imagery in the development of this form of synesthesia and savant abilities.

Keywords: Autism; Genetics; Inheritance; Spatial imagery; Synesthesia.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Auditory Perception / physiology*
  • Autistic Disorder / complications*
  • Child
  • Color Perception / physiology
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Humans
  • Imagery, Psychotherapy / methods
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pedigree
  • Perceptual Disorders / complications*
  • Synesthesia
  • Young Adult

Supplementary concepts

  • Synesthesia