Autism and the Hidden Realities in our Everyday Lives

Abigail and her brother

“Synesthesia is a gift but it is also a beautiful language that needs its own translation.” Jeremy Sicile-Kira

The essay below was written by 17-year old Abigail Delizo for a University of Toronto assignment for a course on Creating Community: Art, Identity and Belonging.

Communication and community, what is the significance between these two aspects? One may answer that it is the relationship that exists between them. A common phrase, usually in reference but not limited to romantic relationships, is that communication is key to a successful relationship. Whereas, this statement is true as proven through communication relationships and friendships form and strengthen. However, what happens when communication is not a viable option? What happens to the relationship?

Autism is a wide spectrum of neurological conditions that hinder an individual’s social and communication skills (Barnard-Brak et al., 2016). As a result, this difficulty in communication poses barriers for these individuals in forming relationships with others.

However, for the Art of Autism nonprofit, this is no problem. The Art of Autism is an organization that provides neurologically divergent individuals, those with autism, a community to form these bonds that many struggle with developing. A community that acts as an outlet for them to express themselves in a different form other than verbal, an artistic way. Whether it be through poems, paintings, sketches, all forms are accepted and available through submission on the Art of Autism’s website. A platform that allows neurologically divergent individuals from all over the globe to be a part of something greater, a community. A place to communicate their feelings, their thoughts, and their reality through art.

The neurological condition, synaesthesia, is generally linked to autism and is caused by the unusual interactions between parts of the brain normally separated (Eagleman, 2010). The interactions between these sections cause what is typically referred to as a “fusion of senses” meaning that when one sense is triggered, another sense is triggered subsequently (Eagleman, 2010). This condition is categorized into a diverse range whereas each individual experiences the condition differently from another. (Eagleman, 2010)

For instance, one may hear a sound and associate it with specific colours, whilst another feels an emotion and sees colours associated with that emotion. But, despite the condition being classified as a “harmless perpetual condition”, it is still generalized in a negative light inflicted by non-synesthetes (Eagleman, 2010).

This generalization stems from the lack of awareness of the condition in both medical practitioners and the public. There have been several cases where synesthetes have been misdiagnosed as mentally ill and called crazy after explaining their condition (Eagleman, 2010). However, synesthetes view their reality just as a non-synesthete perceives theirs, and therefore synaesthetes do not require special medical attention (Eagleman, 2010).

Fundamentally, the Color of Sound provides synesthete artists with an outlet to collaborate as a community in working towards breaking the negative stigma surrounding their conditions through art. In hopes to bring awareness of synaesthesia, each artwork within the gallery challenges the audience of non-synesthetes, to step into the artist’s shoes to discover a perspective other than one’s own, the perspective of a synesthete.

One artist in the exhibit, Jeremy Sicile-Kira, professed that growing up it was difficult for him to communicate the visuals he had been experiencing from his condition of synesthesia into words (Oceanside Museum of Art Smalltalk video, 23:16 to 23:23).

That combined with the lack of social communication skills influenced by autism made it very difficult for him to express himself (Barnard-Brak et al., 2016). Eventually he learned to communicate his feelings and emotions through art which he states saved him from a “life of despair” and gave him “great hope for his future specific colours, whilst another feels an emotion and sees colours associated with that emotion. (Smalltalk video, 26:30 to 26:25).

The mission of the Art of Autism is to be that outlet for individuals who have autism, to express themselves creatively and have the chance to be a part of a community that understands one another.

Jeremy’s story is representative of this mission of community within the Art of Autism, in hopes to provide those who have autism the same outlet to express themselves like Jeremy.

One of the paintings that Jeremy contributed to the art exhibit was “The Beautiful Colors of San Diego under the CoronaVirus and Black Lives Matter Protests.”

Due to his condition, Jeremy associates visual, auditorial, emotional and energetic vibrations as colours portrayed in his artwork (video, 23:49 to 23:57).

In particular, the colours of his painting is symbolistic to the feelings he feels within his city of San Diego, amid George Floyd’s death and the virus outbreak (video, 25:27 to 25:42). Whereas the yellow-green hues represent new growth and unity, the turquoise represents the powerful and positive changes yet to come, and the indigo represents those seeking to fuel their hunger for justice and equality (video, 25:40 to 26:10).

Symbolistic of two recent and ongoing social issues, Jeremy sheds light on his hopes for the future of these events through his art. Synesthesia plays a key influence in the artistic process through carefully selected colours, to allow the audience to perceive his synesthete view of hopefulness, through colours.

The artwork of another artist involved in the Oceanside Museum of Art exhibit, Sydney Edmond, raises awareness of the other aspects linked to the conditions of synesthesia and autism.

Sydney lost the ability to speak at a young age and has since dedicated herself to communicating through art such as painting and music (video, 8:38 to 8:50).

Due to her condition, Sydney perceives music as swirls of colours dependent on the intensity of sound and volume.

In contribution to the exhibit, her paintings were based on the song and the corresponding colours she sees (video, 9:55 to 10:10). Whereas blue and purple like in her artwork “Sing Out” represent operas, jazz and classical music, then yellow and orange represent joyful music (video, 10:10 to 10:40).

Sydney Edmond Sing Out
Sydney Edmond “Sing Out”

Sydney uses a dotting technique called dobbing because of her apraxia, a condition often linked to autism and limits movement control (video, 11:11 to 11:20). Through the musical elements of the song, Sydney portrays her perception as a synesthete with colours and special dotting techniques. Further depicts to the audience that synesthetes enjoy the little things in life like non-synesthetes, such as listening to music, and the unique way it is perceived.

Sydney Edmond’s art brings to light the unique association of colour and sound and how it shapes her perception of music that connects synesthetes and non-synesthetes.

A comment under the Art of Autism’s Instagram page, mentions “love seeing what can be achieved when we stop looking at everything as a problem and start seeing it as something to be explored and used in creative ways” (@woolstanwood_digital, 2019).

This comment is an implication that there is something not quite right, a “problem” which is symbolic of the negative connotation inflicted on those who have synesthesia and autism. On the contrary, the comments depict that individuals with autism do not have to put aside their differences, as their special abilities are unique and should be expressed through different forms of creativity, seen through the Art of Autism.

I was inspired to write about this specific community art project, because of my brother who has autism.

Being a sibling, some certain frustrations and responsibilities come into play, but through research, I learned that the Art of Autism consists of several blog posts written by family members of those in the community. (see sibling perspective and parent perspective).

This supportive community provides not only an outlet for those with autism but comfort and hope for frustrated family members. I felt that upon viewing the art, that the Color of Sound exhibit opened my eyes to the complexity of the condition to understand how a synesthete views the world.

The different colours and legends that explained the artworks allowed me to step into view of the reality of our world through the eyes of a synesthete. I felt that this gallery emphasized the idea of equality, including the artworks of Jeremy Sicile-Kira and Sydney Edmond.

Although everyone perceives their own experiences through a unique lens with different opinions and perceptions, at the end of the day we all experience these life events together. Whether it be through a social injustice movement like the Black Lives Matter Protest, or the coronavirus outbreak or even simply just listening to opera music, we all experience life together.

The Color of Sound is a gateway that bridges the two different realities of a synesthete to a non-synesthete. In an attempt to raise awareness of synesthesia, the Art of Autism nonprofit provides a community for those who have autism to express themselves through art, thereby connecting synesthetes and non-synesthetes through a mutual understanding of art. The artists were able to collaborate and paint their perceptions of certain events influenced by their condition. Essentially, the gallery shows that despite our differences in perception, each and every one of us journeys through life together.

As the colours portrayed in Jeremy’s Sicile-Kira painting, “The Beautiful Colors of San Diego under the CoronaVirus and Black Lives Matter Protests” represent the hopefulness he sees for the future in regards to the virus (video, 25:40 to 26:10). This feeling of hope and emotion is shared by all of us and is what binds the audience and the artist together.

As Jeremy states that, “Synesthesia is a gift but it is also a beautiful language that needs its own translation” and perhaps that translation is through art.

My name is Abigail Delizo and I am a 17-year-old student at the University of Toronto. I am currently taking a course called, “Creating Community: Art, Identity and Belonging” which is what prompted me to write about this organization and art exhibit, the Color of Sound. Beforehand, I knew I wanted to write about a community close to home. I was inspired by my eldest brother, Glenn, who has autism, and luckily I came across the Art of Autism. This paper sheds light on the beautiful community the organization provides their artists, as well as the artwork and stories of the talented artists.

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