Last summer, Meredith began to spend time with a new friend. As they spent more time together, I began to observe many traits in Meredith's friend that suggested she might have synesthesia. In asking her a few simple questions (I almost always start with, "Do your days of the week have a color?" as that seems to be one the most common forms of synesthesia), it became pretty obvious that she was very synesthetic.
As the three of us discussed the girls' similarities, we began talking about numbers and math. Both girls said that they had a terrible time with math facts. However, it was clear that both girls were intellectually advanced in other areas. I confirmed with the friend's mother that this was the case. On educational testing, both girls scored very poorly on math facts, but very high in math concepts. That seemed very peculiar to me and I was exploring with the girls why that might be.
I asked them how their OLP/synesthesia interfered with math facts. Meredith's friend quickly came up with an example. To her, number nine was a wise, old tree and zero was a volcano. She explained that if she has to add nine plus zero, she comes up with nothing, or zero, because she knows that trees don't grow in volcanoes. She told me in a very sincere manner and had a look on her face as if she was hoping I could shed some light on how she could get around this fact that was very real for her.
She offered a second example. When she would have to add two numbers together and the sum was a different color (in her mind) than the combination of the two numbers' individual color, she would be confused. For instance, if she saw 5 as blue and 6 as red, she would expect the answer (11) to be purple. But for her, 11 is yellow. She told me that once a teacher was helping her and she told the teacher, "...but the answer is yellow," and after her teacher gave her an odd look, she dropped it.
I asked Meredith if she remembered a time she said something to a teacher about some synesthetic experience and received an odd look. (It seems relatively common that synesthetes have some early negative encounter with a friend, parent, or teacher after sharing something about their unique synesthetic experiences and that may be one reason they keep it to themselves from that point on. For example, once I was at a party and a guy brought up the fact that his wife always makes fun of him because he says his letters and words have different colors. His wife jumped in and said something to the effect of, "I know! Isn't he just silly?!?" That was a fun moment for me to inform her that no, he was not!) Meredith told me that in second grade, her teacher was holding up flashcards with the different vowel sounds on them (e.g., short a, long a). The class was supposed to say the correct pronunciation of that particular vowel sound out loud when the teacher flashed the card. But when the teacher held up the "short a" flashcard, for example, Meredith would say, "Red," as she sees the letter A as red. Meredith laughed because she said her teacher would just keep holding the flashcard closer and closer to her face hoping to elicit the correct response from her.