This is an information webpage about children with synaesthesia, for teachers and other educators.
Why might teachers care about synaesthesia?
If you know what synaesthesia is, you probably think it’s rare and you'd be right. It affects around 4.4% of the population (refs 1,2) but that equates to 1 in every 23 people which means on average, one child in every classroom you teach could have some form of synaesthesia (refs 1,2,3). Many people with synaesthesia, and especially children, don't mention it because they think everybody has it. And some synaesthetes prefer not to talk about their synaesthesia because they've met with disbelief or other bad reactions in the past. Given this, you may like to understand a more about synaesthesia and how it can affect children in your school.
How might I recognise a child with synaesthesia?
Children say funny things, but sometimes those things are true descriptions of synaesthesia. When you know what synaesthesia is, it can be fairly easy to recognise. Below are descriptions of common synaesthesias, a longer list of different types of synaesthesia is available here (link under construction).
Common triggers for synaesthesia are sequences like numbers, letters, days of the week, and months of the year. Children with grapheme-colour synaesthesia for example see colours when they think about letters or numbers. For example, the letter A might be red, B might be yellow etc. These colours are experienced as a type of consistent, automatic mental imagery and to the child are just as much a part of the letter/number as its shape. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia has been linked to differences in parts of the brain that perceive colour (ref 4) but synaesthesia can also extend beyond colour and the five senses. For children with sequence-personality synaesthesia (also known as ordinal linguistic personification) these sequences like letters, numbers, days etc. trigger a strong sense of a personality (e.g., Monday might be a mother-type) and sometimes these personalities can be mean or unpleasant (e.g., 7 might be a scary man). This type of synaesthesia has been linked to very slight differences in the part of the brain that connects the two brain hemispheres. In sequence-space synaesthesia, sequences are mapped out in space in particular spatial patterns like lines or zig-zags. Yet other children with synaesthesia might experience tastes, shapes, textures, odours, triggered by the sounds they hear, or by other types of everyday activities. Another example is mirror-touch synaesthesia, in which children experience touch sensations and even pain when they see other children in pain (ref 5).
What could I do if parents tell me their child has synaesthesia?
The suggestions below represents the opinions of the website author (Prof. Julia Simner), given previous real-life cases, and the latest scientific research. But ultimately, the best decision for any child will be based on the views of parents, working with you towards the child's best interests. It may be that the best action in some cases is no action at all but simply offering an understanding ear. The majority of parents who contact us are simply trying to convince teachers that synaesthesia exists and that it may be having some kind of effect on their child. We have provided a brief downloadable information sheet on childhood synaesthesia, which can help parents explain to teachers how synaesthesia is affecting their child, and we also recommend that teachers read this brief NHS webpage about synaesthesia. Synaesthesia can sometimes have benefits like improving memory and processing speed (ref 6), but some children with synaesthesia experience difficulties, described below.
- Visual confusions: A child experiences difficulties with maths, sums and numbers. For example, he or she may regularly confuse two numbers that are coloured the same in her synaesthesia. Response: simply have an awareness of the difficulties that can be caused and take this into account when interpreting the child’s responses. You can also encourage the benefits. We know, for example, that synaesthetes with coloured numbers can improve their recall for numbers by trying to remember the different colours that accompany them.
- Visual Distractions: A child experiences difficulty because the sound of music from the music room next door is causing colours that are obscuring her view of the white board. Response: believe the report, and try to minimise the noise.
- Sensory Overload: One often-reported problem is that synaesthesia can cause a sensory overload. This is when the sensations triggered by synaesthesia can feel overwhelming or unpleasant. Although this might happen to any child with synaesthesia, it can be particularly pronounced or problematic if the child also happens to have an Autism Spectrum Condition such as Asperger Syndrome (you can read about the relationship between synaesthesia and autism here). Response: Try to remove from the environment any unnecessary stimulus that is contributing to the overload. Allow time in a quiet environment to defuse the discomfort.
- Conflicting information within the classroom: People with synaesthesia can feel uncomfortable when seeing things in the environment in the ‘wrong’ colours, in other words, in colours that conflict with their synaesthesia. For example, classrooms often have a coloured alphabet on display; this can cause slight discomfort for some children with synaesthesia who might have their own colours for letters, which likely will not match. Response: replace the coloured alphabet with a black and white one. If this isn't possible, be aware of the difficulties in using coloured letters and numbers with synaesthetic children and take this into account when directing their learning activities. In general, you might seek to understand how teaching aids may be influencing the child and adjust accordingly.
- Ineffective processing styles: children with sequence-space synaesthesia can see numbers mapped out in space, in spatial patterns like lines, ellipses or zig-zags (imagine a 'number landscape' mapped out in front of the body). People with this form of synaesthesia can have problems with multiplication because they may be relying on their visual/spatial numbers when in fact the best strategy is to use verbal memory (ref 7). Response: you may find the child needs more time and encouragement when rote-learning the multiplication tables, and you might encourage a more verbal style in this regard.
- Experiencing pain from synaesthesia: Unfortunately, there are several forms of synaesthesia that can cause pain. One particular example is called mirror-touch synaesthesia, in which children can experience pain when they see other children who have hurt themselves. In other types of synaesthesia, everyday pain (e.g., a headache) is accompanied by synaesthetic colours. For this type of synaesthesia, children sometimes report that thinking very hard about colours and synaesthesia can cause flashes of pain. Response: You might treat the reports of pain the same way you would treat any other report of pain at school. Also understand that a child with mirror-touch is not being self-oriented just because he/she seeks attention when another child is hurt.
Thank you for working with parents to support children with synaesthesia. Overall, a child with synaesthesia will primarily simply wish to be believed. This small act is extremely powerful for self-esteem and overall well-being. Although synaesthesia is rare, the likelihood is you will always have more than one child with synaesthesia in your school at any given time (refs 2,3). We welcome feedback on our suggestions above and your own experiences with synaesthesia in the classroom - please contact us!.
If you are a teacher who has not yet entered your unique anonymous reference code from a parent via our downloadable information sheet, thank you for entering it here. (This will allow the parent to know that you have been able to find time to read our information webpage; it is very much appreciated).
- (1) Simner, J. & Carmichael, D.A. (2015). Is synaesthesia a dominantly female trait? Cognitive neuroscience, 6, 68-76.
- (2) Simner, J. et al. (2006). Synaesthesia: The prevalence of atypical cross-modal experiences. Perception, 35, 1024-1033.
- (3) Simner, J. et al. (2009). Early detection of markers for synaesthesia in childhood populations. Brain, 132, 57-64.
- (4) Hubbard, E.M. & Ramachandran, V. S. (2005). Neurocognitive mechanisms of synesthesia. Neuron, 48, 509-520.
- (5) Banissy, M.J. et al. (2009). Prevalence, characteristics and a neurocognitive model of mirror-touch synaesthesia. Experimental Brain Research, 198, 261-272.
- (6) Simner, J. & Bain, A.E. Do children with grapheme-colour synaesthesia show cognitive benefits? (In review)
- (7) Ward J. et al. (2009). The Impact of Visuo-Spatial Number Forms on Simple Arithmetic. Cortex, 45(10), 1261-5
In the interests of anonymity we have not pictured children with synaesthesia on our website. Our photographs are reproduced from the following sources: