It's Not Easy Being Green: Living With Autism and Synesthesia

One morning Jeremy woke up with a big grin on his face. He spelled out on his letterboard, "I dreamt I painted your personality and I have to say it was purple and very lively."
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The recent discovery that my son Jeremy sees and feels emotions as colors has been a life changer. Until now, I only saw the difficulties associated with his living in a world that is too loud and too bright. I did not know about the beautiful, colorful portraits of people that he paints in his dreams. In "I Listen to Color" Neil Harbisson describes how he translates sound into colorful portraits. In much the same way, Jeremy translates the emotions of people into portraits -- only he does it in his sleep.

Jeremy is 24, and is severely impacted by sensori-motor challenges. It is a struggle for him to get his body and senses together. He types or points to letters on a keyboard to communicate. Despite his difficulties, he graduated from high school at age 22, co-authored a book, and has been an advocate for the autism community. Now, he is a painter.

Two years ago, Jeremy was flipping through the book Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet (who has synesthesia), and I remarked that our friends Debra and her son Blaze also see letters and words in color. Jeremy replied by spelling out on his letterboard, "Doesn't everyone?"

I was taken by surprise. I asked him about some words and it became clear he associated colors with emotions."Dana" is a yellow word, because the Dana he knows is bright and happy. "Ted" is a green word because our Ted is very calm. A couple of weeks later, Jeremy made comments to his therapist in regards to seeing color around people. Upon further questioning Jeremy typed "I see and feel emotions as color."

Jeremy's ability is both a blessing and a curse. Being able to "read" people when interviewing prospective support staff is definitely a plus. If someone is green (calm) or yellow (happy) and fulfills other important criteria, he or she is granted a second interview. Red (anxious) people are not invited back. On the flip side, it's not easy living with a human mood ring. Let's face it, life is stressful and it's not always easy being green and when we are red, Jeremy can't be in the same room; it's too painful for him. We've tried to teach him different strategies to not feel other people's emotions, but it's not easy for him to block them out.

Then I discovered that in his dreams, Jeremy painted portraits of people. One morning Jeremy woke up with a big grin on his face. He spelled out on his letterboard, "I dreamt I painted your personality and I have to say it was purple and very lively." The next day he spelled out "I greatly dreamed I painted my kind Dana. It was bright yellow and it had a kind of a sparkle. Truly she is like the sunshine. Happiness is everywhere." After a few days of dictating his nighty dreams, he spelled out: "Justly I frankly had a dream I had an art show at the AGI/ARI art gallery. I had ten paintings at the gallery. Mom, you are nice to tell me how to get an art show." I replied, "First, show me the paintings!"

So he started to paint with the help of a support person. Since then, he has painted many of his dreams. Mostly he paints about people he sees often. For example:

My Dad

Last night I dreamt that I greatly painted my great Dad. It was kind of green and red. It showed my beautiful Dad's calm with underlying unhappiness with life's upsets. The finger strokes are the tears he cannot shed.


Rebecca's Passion

I frankly dreamt I painted my nice true sister Rebecca. Kindly I painted the beautiful aura of Rebecca listening to music. Her happiness is contagious. Music truly colors her world. The colors represent the music she enjoys. The brush strokes represent the different beats and rhythm. Nicely Rebecca is wonderful and lively represented by the variety of brush strokes.


He has painted people he has seen on TV, such as President Obama the night of his reelection.

Our President Obama

I had a great dream that I painted President Obama. I greatly felt his worries for the country. President Obama was green with the calm of intelligent reflection. The green was like the forest green greatly full of strokes of ivory symbolizing hope for the future and love for all people. He had red undertones for the anxiety he feels for his beloved country. Our Obama will have tough times but he will greatly, justly, kindly lead the way to a better future, symbolized by the color purple. The texture represents the rocky road Obama will have to navigate.


I asked Jeremy when he started having dreams. He replied he's always had these dreams, but hadn't mentioned it earlier because he didn't think it was anything special. Now he realizes that his ability to create these portraits is a unique and special talent that people are willing to pay him for. More importantly, painting provides an opportunity to connect with people -- something that is hard to do when you are autistic and need a piece of equipment to communicate. Like every young man, Jeremy wants friends and his own place. Meanwhile, I'm working on making his dream of his first art show come true.

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