Guest Post: Synesthesia


As part of his ongoing guest blogs this month as our Digital Resident, artist and musician Patrick Samuel shares what living with autism and synesthesia is like for him, and how he uses that in his art and music. 

If you haven’t read Patrick’s other posts yet, please check back on our News & Views pages!

Artwork in pastel showing a man's back as he looks out to a landscape

Picture: The Dream — original painting by Patrick Samuel — oil pastels on card — 49x39cm

When were you diagnosed with autism?

My autism diagnosis came quite late in life. I was 38 when I was finally referred to the Maudsley Hospital for a diagnostic interview and assessment. Despite this, we’ve always known I was on the spectrum and had been trying to get support with counselling, medication and care for several years, but was being denied access until I got help from my local MP at the time.

Since then, things have fallen into place with PIP, my Freedom Pass, tailored medication, full-time care, CBT and creative therapies. I’ve also been diagnosed with ADHD, marked anxiety and low mood, and I’m still waiting for my for dyspraxia and dyslexia assessments.

What is living with autism like for you?

There are good days and then there are very bad days. Communication is something I struggle a lot with, and I tend to shut down when I’m overwhelmed. I often need extra time to process information and to give answers. I have a lot of anxiety around people. One of the biggest challenges comes with sensory overload — bright lights, noises, smells, vibration and movement.

I’m not proud of my meltdown moments and this is something I try very hard to prevent by excusing myself from situations when I know it’s becoming too much. I need a lot of support with daily tasks, reminders about things I need to do and prompting when out and about.

What are the good days like?

On good days I’m super focused and can work intensely on either my art or music. I can meticulously plan things around my special interests and set small goals for myself; like a CD or record I’d like to have or a comic book I would like to find. On good days I’m able to engage with my friends and family and my emotional support dog. Even on the good days, I still need the support, reminders and prompting. My autism, like me, remains consistent.

What is synesthesia and does yours present itself?

Synesthesia presents itself in a lot of ways and in a myriad of combinations. It’s a perceptual phenomenon in which one sense triggers another. It’s a lifelong neurodiverse condition, but it’s also under-researched by the medical and academic professionals because the data is so difficult to quantify by conventional methods. Whereas some synesthetes associate numbers with certain tastes, or the sensation of touch with various colours, my synesthesia revolves around colour and sounds.

How does this affect you?

Lights can be too loud, and sounds can be too bright. As a child I would keep trying to tell my parents when they switched off a light in a different room and I was in my bed, the sound was too bright. It would create a burst of light. When I’m outside somewhere that’s quite busy, the brightness of that sound can be overwhelming and contribute to sensory overload. I wear shades not because I want to look cool, but because it’s too loud outside.

How have you adapted to it?

At home I don’t have any bright lights, it’s a combination of lamps, candles and fairy lights to keep the brightness at night to a bearable amount and to use as much natural light as possible during the day. Overhead lights for example must be avoided. Noises are kept to a minimum at home, even when watching movies. I prefer to read closed caption rather than having sudden loud noises in a show or film.

Has synesthesia been useful in creating art and music?

Over time, I found certain types of music create particularly pleasant auras, patterns, shapes and colours. When I paint, specific colours generate tones and if I use the colours in the right way, I can hear something that pleases my senses. So I try to hone in on that to satisfy the pleasure centres in my brain, and it can be addictive at times, stimulating the brain in that way.

What colours and sounds have the best combinations for you?

I’m always drawn to orange because it has a warm synth pad kind of sound. It’s deep and resonates well with a lot of “stereo width”. There’s a certain hue of blue that’s a very sharp pizzicato-like sound, but also verges on icy. I use it rarely. There are a lot of bass tones in my music because I’m drawn to red a lot, but it’s a vivid, almost luminous crimson colour.

There’s a whole spectrum of sounds, but it’s usually orange through to red I’m drawn to in both art and music. That’s the best way I’ve found to harness my synesthesia and to keep it from over-overwhelming me!


Digital Residencies is part of Drake Music’s covid-secure artistic programming and is supported by the Arts Council England Culture Recovery Fund. It is a self-directed online residency for Disabled artists.

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