Face-Blindness in Autism

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

“Everyone knows Jeannie; she just doesn’t know them.”

That was the common phrase I heard in high school. A constant stream of hugs, smiles, and waves filled my days. I never understood how so many people who I didn’t know, knew me.

Prosopagnosia, also known as “facial agnosia” or “face-blindness,” is a neurological disorder that makes facial recognition difficult or impossible. Two thirds of autistic children and adults have some degree of face-blindness. I live among those numbers.

Do I know you? That is the question that runs through my head when someone I don’t recognize approaches me in public. They call me by name, ask about my children, my parents, and my work—I know I should know this person, but I do not.

When my husband and I were first married we attended a very large church in Brooklyn, NY where I often spoke to people having no idea who they were. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I just figured that in such a large church I never ran into the same person twice.

Being greeted by hugs and kisses from strangers has always made me uncomfortable; I don’t like to be touched. To add to my discomfort the odd looks these strangers gave me when I introduced myself was unnerving. When people approached us to talk, I assumed that my husband knew them. We talked for a while, they left, and my husband would say, “You know them, I introduced you last week.” You did?

I met the same people at church, each Sunday, talked with them, and still did not recognize them the following week. It’s no wonder they looked at me like I was a lunatic when I introduced myself, yet again.

When the same scene played itself out over and over, I began to believe what I had been told my entire life. I was a lazy, absent-minded, self-absorbed air-head, who didn’t care enough about people to remember them. Or—I was stuck up, obnoxious, too good for anyone, and just ignored people; nothing could have been further from the truth.

The first time I read about Face-blindness, I was stunned. I had another one of those “ah ha” moments. The moments were I had to look back at my life with new eyes, evaluating it through the lens of Autism.

It took 38 years for me to be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a form of high functioning Autism—38 years of confusing experiences.

When I was a child AS was not a known diagnosis in the United States. Although, well-known in Europe for more than twenty years at the time, it only became a viable diagnosis in the U.S. in 1994; three years after I was out of high school, and two years after I’d dropped out of college the first time around.

What is wrong with me? Why do I have trouble recognizing faces?

We do not see with our eyes, we “see” with our brains. All of us—with or without Autism see with our brains. Our eyes take in a snapshot but it is our brains that process all the information in the photo. It makes sense of all the patterns, categorizes them, and stores them for later use (recognition).

I fail to recognize familiar faces, but I never fail to recognize a tree, or a cat, or the shapes of clouds. Why?

A number of theories have arisen to answer this question. Maybe because we tend to not look people in the eye, or focus on their faces, we have a hard time remembering them. It is said that autistics tend to be socially uninterested—that we don’t care enough to remember people.

Could it be an issue of weak central coherence?

Those with weak central coherence tend to focus on details but lose track of, or don’t perceive the whole. A tendency to focus on minute details, a portion of the face or specific feature, without taking in the whole picture could be partially responsible for many autistics having have difficulty with facial recognition. All of these theories seem viable; however, I believe there is more to it than that.

Facial recognition is isolated in the right temporal lobe in the “fusiform face area.” Non-facial recognition happens on the left side of the brain. In other words, all other details, pieces, and patterns are processed on the left side of the brain.

Why does this matter? Autistics tend to do fairly well on pattern recognition tests—significantly better than their neuro-typical counterparts, but do poorly on facial recognition tests. The opposite is true for neuro-typical people who perform very well on facial recognition test, but do poorly in pattern recognition. In the autistic brain it seems that the “fusiform face area” does not function the way other people’s do. This could explain why I wouldn’t recognize you if you stood on your head—or would I?

Tests showed that autistics were able to recognize faces that they viewed upside down. Researchers found that the circuitry that recognizes faces only works on faces that are right side up. Upside down faces are routed to the left side of the brain to be processed like any other image. The upside down faces processed like patterns, and autistics recognized those facial patterns.

How did you know it was me?” a friend asked pulling her mask from her face.

Costume parties, for me, are like any other social gathering. If I knew you well, I recognized you. It did not matter what you used to cover your face. I recognized the contour of my friend’s hands, her ring, the shoes we bought at the mall that summer, the way she stood, and swished her head back and forth when she talked. I spotted her from across the room, without hearing her say a word, or knowing what costume she was wearing.

Most people rely on facial features to recognize someone they know. I’ve always wondered why bank robbers wore ski masks, but did not disguise the rest of the body. And it was ridiculous that in superhero movies no one recognized their loved ones because they wore a mask over their face. Don’t all people rely on other details to recognize people they know?

When I think of my brother, I can form a mental picture of his face in my mind. I have no problem recognizing people who I know well. But I can also bring up just as sharp mental picture of his hands, or the way he has this one thick vein that rolls back and forth over his wrist bone. My oldest brother has hands exactly like my mother’s, my father’s hands look exactly like his fathers, and my son’s feet are very similar to my youngest brother’s feet. I would recognize the way the hair lies across my husband’s arms, and would recognize him even if he wore a mask. These details are as vivid as any face I can recall.

For several years I worked in prisons. My co-workers often wore uniforms, and were stationed at the same posts day after day. On a daily basis, I recognized them, said hello, knew their names—but if I saw them outside work, I did not recognize them. If their uniform was off, or they were not where they should be (at their post), then I did not recognize them. I processed the whole situation—the person, in uniform, sitting behind that desk. I was not processing the person’s face. Place this same person in the supermarket, at the post office, or in the school cafeteria eating with their children, and I do not recognize them at all.

Many people have had the experience of seeing someone, and not being able to “place” their face; they the person who stands before them from somewhere, but can’t remember where. Or, they know the face and cannot recall a name. I too, have had these types of experiences with those that I have had contact with often enough to recognize something about them. But—more often than not, I simple do not recognize them at all. There is no inkling of familiarity, no spark of recognition; it is as if I am staring into the face of a complete and total stranger.