“What color is the sky, guys?”
We are driving to daycare, and to distract Sadie from crying about not being able to finish her toast and to keep Logan focused and off grunting in the gravely, guttural voice he’s taken to (if you’ve seen the movie Monsters, Inc., he’s echoing the Roz character), I throw questions at my kids.
Oh, come on, guys, I think. You’re both smarter than that. But as I look skyward, I see that they’re right. As the sun’s early rays pierce the sky, it does glow beautifully pink. A few wispy streaks of gray clouds also paint the scene.
Ever since a friend posted this awesome article to Facebook, I’ve been obsessed with idea of color. Apparently, “blue” was the last color word to enter every language on the planet. The ancient Greeks had no word for it—Homer saw his seas as “wine-dark” rather than sky-colored. In fact, in all the descriptions written of the skies in Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, the ancient Hebrew Bible, and Hindu Vedic hymns, nothing suggests that people saw the sky as blue.
Still today, even, the Himba tribe in Namibia has no word for “blue.” When asked what color the sky is, the tribespeople say it has no color.
This morning, my sky has no color. It’s almost hard to tell where my white office wall ends and the white sky in the window starts. There are no clouds, no texture or patterns in the sky—just a flat wall of white.
So why do we say the sky is blue, anyway? I’m aware of why it looks blue, from light waves penetrating the atmosphere—that’s not what I’m asking. I’m curious why we say it’s blue even though it’s just as often white-gray (maybe this is more common in Minnesota). It can glow red or gold. Half the time it’s black. The blue could be a pale shimmer or the blazing shade of blue raspberry snow cones from Dairy Queen. (Another blue oddity: There almost no natural blue foods—even blueberries really aren’t all that blue. Almost no true blue flowers or animals, either.)
But you know “blue” would be the only acceptable answer to this question on a standardized test. We train our kids to think in acceptable ways, not divergent ones.
So where will this leave Logan, and other children who see things differently? Maybe the sky isn’t blue.
And maybe other things are.
As I read about colors entering language, immediately I thought of the book/blog What Color is Monday? by Carrie Cariello and Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet.* Both Tammet and Cariello’s son have synesthesia, a blending of the senses. They also both have autism.
In his memoir, Tammet writes poetically about the autism and synesthesia in his world:
“People with Asperger’s do want to make friends but find it very difficult to do so. The keen sense of isolation was something I felt very deeply and was very painful for me.” Numbers, he says, were his friends.
“The number 1, for example, is a brilliant and bright white, like someone shining a flashlight into my eyes. Five is a clap of thunder or the sound of waves crashing against rocks. Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while 89 reminds me of falling snow.”
Usually in autism, we hear about sensory overload—the overwhelming feel of your socks, your shirt tag on your neck, the buzzing fluorescent lights, your coworkers’ clicking keyboards clicks, the screaming phones, the smell of coffee, the smell of microwaved oatmeal all wrestling for your attention. But hyposensitivity can come with autism, too, Logan’s occupational therapist told me, where people with experience too little sensory input. Or maybe they shut it all out, since there is too much to sort through.
So this idea of sensory mixing in autism is intriguing. Synesthesia still isn’t common among people with autism (I don’t think Logan has it), but it is more common here than with the general population. According to prominent autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen’s 2013 study, 4% of the general population has synesthesia while maybe 19% of the autistic population has it.
To Tammet, the word “ladder” is shiny blue; the French word “jardin” is a blurry yellow, the Icelandic word “hnugginn” is white with lots of blue specks. I wonder, what do we miss out on when we can’t see colors all around us? What do we miss when there is only one answer to the question, “What color is the sky?”
“I see orange,” I announce to my kids as we drive to daycare again.
“I see it!” squeals Sadie. “And pink!”
“Yellow!” shouts Logan. “I think it’s going to be sunny today!”
Maybe we don’t see the word “blue” in ancient texts not because people didn’t see this color but because they recognized that the sky wasn’t just this one answer. Maybe they saw all colors overhead. Maybe they looked at things with fresher eyes than we do today.
If nines can be blue to some people and Thursday can be purple, maybe the sky can be pink and yellow, too. Imagine how much richer our world would be if we saw and celebrated more colors, more strengths, more divergent thinking.
*I had not read this book yet, so I checked it out from the library and took it to read at a nearby coffee shop—awesomely called Blue Monday.