I had lunch with a friend the other day and, as it frequently does, the question of what causes autism came up. This particular friend is a highly logical and analytical person whom I know is not looking for a two-second soundbite, and who was very comfortable with the answer I gave

“I think it is complicated and that there is no one single cause.”

For example, I have an interesting condition called synesthesia, defined in Wikipedia as

“a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.”

This is a fancy way of saying that I see letterswords and numbers in my head in colors. I also see flashes of color for some sounds, and for some visual elements, like busy geometric patterns, I can hear sounds.

I didn’t realize this was unusual until I was an adult and I have only met a few people with some condition – a colleague who saw geometric shapes when he heard sounds, and both my sisters who also see letters, words and numbers in color (albeit different colors for different words – we’ll playfully argue quite a bit about the color of Friday (that’s not quite right, it needs to be more oxblood) for example).

As my sister once wrote:

[Synethesia is] a gift. And it’s unusual. I think there are other people in the world who share this unique trait, but the only ones that I know of are my sisters. So in the circle of my extended family, and my friends, it’s something weird about me.

(In the same post she also references her sisters and, for the record, I am the annoying bossy sister. I did not bite her on the toe and was there when it happened, so I can bossily corroborate the evidence with eye-witness testimony identifying who actually did the biting.)

Late last year the BBC reported on a study which discovered a connection between Autism and synesthesia, noting

“[r]esearch suggests synaesthesia is nearly three times as common in adults with autism spectrum disorder than in the general population. The two conditions may share common features such as unusual wiring of the brain ….”

It is interesting to think that my son and I may have similar cross-wiring in our brains that manifest differently. And it begs the question, what is the genetic connection?

Studies have identified autism links to immune issues, the age of the mom at conception, the age of the dad at conception, air pollution, toxins, even induced labor, as well as genetics.

The truth is, however, that I don’t spend a lot of time researching and worrying over the causes of autism. I can’t have any more children, and my focus is not on the past so much as it is on the present and the future and how to help my son be the best he can be just as he is.

I would really become interested in what the causes of autism were if the information could somehow help me support and guide my son.

In the meantime, I will share the colors of my mind with those of my son, and we’ll keep growing together. 

The Colors in My Mind