Are you picturing me? or just thinking about me? Aphantasia, Synaesthesia and Autism

Are you picturing me? or just thinking about me? Aphantasia, Synaesthesia and Autism

Jenna D'Ottavio
7 minute read

Are you picturing me? Or just thinking about me? 

When you think of your favorite person, can you smell their scent? 

Or maybe, see the way their hair falls into their face? 

Can you hear the sound of their sweet voice? 

The 2021 article, What is the relationship between Aphantasia, Synaesthesia and Autism? Consciousness and Cognition, from the Cognition and Consciousness International Journal, explores the relationship between Aphantasia, Synaesthesia, and Autism. 

The authors hypothesized that Aphantasics, which Oxford Languages has defined as, someone who does not have the ability to form mental images of objects that are not present, may be less likely to experience Synaesthesia – or indeed, unable to experience it at all (Simner, 2021). 

Aphantasia is most often a congenital or life-long condition, in which individuals experience an absence of visual imagery, or imagery that is only vague or dim (Zeman et al., 2015). Previous prevalence estimates for aphantasia range from 0.7% (Zeman et al., 2020) to 2.1% (Faw, 2009) 

and 6.7% (Betts, 1909) for individuals with no mental imagery at all, but are as high as 10–11% or 15.3% (Faw and Betts respectively) for imagery that is either absent or dim/vague (Zeman, 2021). 

Synesthesia is the merging of 2 or more senses. Like, the ability to think about the perfect sugar cookie, and tasting it on your tongue. Or how sunlight feels purple and orange to me. 

The hypothesis made by these researchers was proven false through an Aphantasia prevalence of 14.3% in the Synesthete group, and 16.5% in the non-Synesthete group. Overall, the results determine that high imagery is therefore not a prerequisite of Synaesthesia, and that it is possible to have Synaesthesia with little or no imagery at all (Simner, 2021). 

This article is consistent with the knowledge that Autistic communities report being Synesthetic at an increased rate as compared to Neuro-Typical populations. But it also juxtaposes research. 

It's almost like all Autistic people think differently…

“Autism has been linked with poor imagery (or at the very least, with poor imagination” (Simner, 2021), while “other research shows the cognitive style in Autism of ‘thinking in pictures’ may point to elevated imagery in Autistic individuals” (Girard, & Mottron, 2011). 

So which is it? 

What if our imaginations cannot be framed by the boxes that have already been built? What if it is necessary that we reshape the way that questions are asked, in order to uplift each and every one of us. 

The authors go on to say, “Our final hypothesis relates to the relationship between Aphantasia and Autism, another neurodevelopmental condition with links to imagery. People with Autism show a range of developmental differences, for example, in social processing, communication, 

sensory sensitivity, and – importantly for us – deficits in imagination (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). For example, children with Autism engage less in imaginative behaviour such as pretend play” (Simner, 2021).... 

Do we? 

What if our realities are so imaginative, that we do not have the time to engage in play expected from neuro-typical children. 

Autistic children show an increased prevalence in Hyperlexia. The term hyperlexia was coined by Silberberg and Silberberg (1967) and refers to an “extraordinary reading skills despite serious linguistic, cognitive, and behavioral disorders” (Aram and Healy, 1988, p. 70). Classical hyperlexia is found in an estimated 5–10% of autistic children (Burd and Kerbeshian, 1985 & Newman, 2004). 

Studies of individuals with Autism and Asperger’s disorder have found a general pattern of stronger word-reading skills in the presence of deficits in language and abstract reasoning (Minshew, Goldstein, Taylor, & Siegel, 1994; Szatmari, Tuff, Finlayson, & Bartolucci, 1990). 

I was a Hyperlexic child, who became a Hyperlexic adult. My parents also love to read, so it made sense to my 23-year-old parents that their 4 year old was preoccupied by books. 

I have to set alarms to remind me to stop reading. I am at all times reading 6,7, 8 books. My imagination is not satiated by make belief play, and it never was. 

Attitudes that assume we are limited in our abilities are misplaced. These same attitudes withhold access and opportunities which would elevate us.

Maybe us as Autistics are hidden vessels of genius, but when we do not play with other children or adults, and we flinch beneath overhead planes-- people begin to question our ability to contribute to society. 

Though this article presents that, “Autism has been linked with poor imagery (or at the very least, with poor imagination”(Simner, 2021), it also juxtaposes research which empowers my hypothesis,--everyone perceives reality idiosyncratically-- “Other research too shows the cognitive style in autism of ‘thinking in pictures’, which may point to elevated imagery in autistic individuals” ( Mottron, 2011). 

The research suggests that Autistics who have high imagery allows for their imagination to become ‘scene-like’ to an extreme extent. Supporting this hypothesis, Amsel, Kutas and Coulson (2017) showed that self-reported visual imagery is higher in imagery projectors rather than associators (using the Object-Spatial Imagery and Verbal Questionnaire; Blazhenkova & Kozhevnikov, 2009). 

So what is projecting imagery, versus associative imagery? 

Imagine this, follow me. 

Chromesthetes are people who merge their hearing with a color, like hearing Beyoncé’s voice in a thick, gold fluid. 

Projective imagery is seeing the thick, gold fluid in my field of vision when Lemonde comes on through the radio, 

Whereas Associative imagery is knowing the thick, gold fluid is there, but not being able to quite find it. 

Imagine if everywhere you went, you had to decipher the sound of traffic--that car honk was red and angry--or how when people talk to you, you lose their words and their voice over the texture of the stop light. 

Maybe it's not a deficit in imagination, but more of an incomprehensible level of what is imagined. How can we expect others to understand this; it's like looking for something you do not even know exists. 

Thanks for reading. 

-Jenna D’Ottavio 

Works Cited:

1. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013. 

2. Blazhenkova, Olesya & Kozhevnikov, Maria. The New Object-Spatial-Verbal Cognitive Style Model: Theory and Measurement. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 23. 638 - 663. Object-Spatial Imagery and Verbal Questionnaire; 2009 

3. Elevated Imagery Research. Keller, Kana. Kana, Keller, Cherkassky, Minshew, & Just, 2006; Kunda & Goel, 2008, 2011; Souli`eres, Zeffiro, Girard, & Mottron, 2011). 4. Newman, T.M., Macomber, D., Naples, A.J. et al. Hyperlexia in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. J Autism Dev Disord 37, 760–774 (2007). 

5. Ostrolenk, Alexia. Baudouin Forgeot d’Arc, Patricia Jelenic, Fabienne Samson, Laurent Mottron,Hyperlexia: Systematic review, neurocognitive modelling, and outcome,Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews,Volume 79,2017, Pages 134-149, 

6. Siegel, Don J. Evaluation of High-Functioning Autism. Neuropsychology, 1998 7. Silberberg NE, Silberberg MC. Hyperlexia—Specific Word Recognition Skills in Young Children. Exceptional Children. 1967;34(1):41-42. 

8. Simner, J. C.J. Dance , M. Jaquiery , D.M. Eagleman , D. Porteous , A. Zeman , J.What is the relationship between Aphantasia, Synaesthesia and Autism? Cognition and Consciousness International Journal, 2021. 

9. Soulières I, Zeffiro TA, Girard ML, Mottron L. Enhanced mental image mapping in autism. Neuropsychologia. 2011 Apr;49(5):848-857. doi: 

10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2011.01.027. Epub 2011

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