I am told that when I was eighteen months old, my mother, brother and me went overseas for six weeks and left my dad at home. Apparently, when we were greeted at the airport by my dad, I was terrified of this strange bearded man and had no idea who he was.
I have had face-blindness (or ‘prosopagnosia’) since I was a baby. It is one feature of my unique neurological and cognitive makeup which I would be very happy to live without. What it means is that when I meet somebody, even someone in my close family, I might not recognise them the next time I see them. Prosopagnosia seems to be more common amongst Autistic people and it can lead to some challenging social situations and embarrassment on the part of the person who fails to recognise somebody who expects them to.
When I was at high school, there were two girls who were bullies and really seemed to enjoy picking on me. Unfortunately I couldn’t tell one from the other, so always called them by the wrong name. Nobody I knew in the 1980s seemed to be aware of this difficulty. I would have given anything to know one person from the next. In a school where the students were – in my mind at least – divided into the ones that hated me and the ones who were friendly or indifferent, it would have been nice to know which ones were which! It certainly led to some awkward situations.
Many humans periodically forget others’ names, especially people they have just met. Oh what I would give to have that issue! I remember the name of everyone I meet and also store a few helpful facts about them, as I have a good memory for names and facts. However, when it comes to remembering what they look like, it’s about 50/50. Many people think you’re rude and have forgotten them if you forget what they look like as prosopagnosia was until recently, almost unknown in general society.
I featured in a documentary about autism a few years ago and while it was being filmed, I arranged to meet up with the director at an exhibition opening at a large art gallery where my work was featured. All my other artist friends were excited to be included in the show but I was worried about remembering what people looked like. When the film director arrived I knew that I had met her before but had no idea whether she was the film director or one of the gallery staff who looked similar. Eventually I worked it out from the context of what she was saying. Given that the film was about autism, the director was very understanding but I remember silently cursing my difficulties with facial recognition.
For some reason, my prosopagnosia only applies to certain people. There are some people that I meet once and remember every time I see them again and their are others who I’ve met dozens of times and still have no idea what they look like.
I work in a large Government department. We employ about 2000 staff. I have worked in this department for almost ten years, so I have worked in many different teams with different people. I’ve probably worked with over 150 departmental staff and met about 300 more in the course of doing business. Unfortunately, the longer the time since I have seen someone, the less likely I am to remember them. I’m often explaining to rather put-out ex-colleagues that if they just tell me their name I will know exactly who they are! Recently this problem has been compounded by the fact that I have received a lot of publicity around my Autism advocacy work. I now frequently find myself getting in the lift in my work building and seeing people who obviously know who I am and trying to work out if they are a previous colleague – who I should recognise – or just somebody who’s seen some of my publicity. If I were to list my top three difficulties at work, I think the face recognition issue would be about number two!
Some tips on dealing with this problem
- Never assume that other people – especially neurotypical people – will automatically understand that you can’t recognise faces. most people are to aware prosopagnosia even exists.
- Don’t try to hide it! Gently explain your issue with facial recognition. This can help build understanding among people who otherwise might have thought you – or others they meet who have prosopagnosia – simply rude or dismissive.
- Some people with prosopagnosia make notes of physical attributes of people other than their facial features, including:
- Fashion sense (particularly useful if the person has a unique dress sense)
- The way they walk
- Mannerisms (such as hand gestures)
- Particular items, such as a handbag they always wear or a certain taste in jewellery
- Hairstyle (although obviously this can change)..
- If you meet a new person, especially someone in a business or professional context, or the new partner of a friend or family member, explain your prosopagnosia at the outset.
- Try and make a bit of a joke of it – humour can relieve tension for both you and the other person and helps them feel at ease talking to you about it.
- Be prepared for some questions or comments, but don’t worry as adults will generally not criticise you for your recognition problems. They may, however, be quite interested in your experience, especially if they have not knowingly come across it before.
- If possible, meet people at their house or at your house rather than in public places.
- However, if you are meeting somebody you have difficulty recognising in a public place, like a cafe or bar, there’s a few things you can do to alleviate the problem:
- Arrive early and let them come to you
- Prior to the meeting, let them know that you might not recognise them so they aren’t offended if you walk past them
- Take a photo of them with you and refer to it (while noting that some people with prosopagnosia – like myself – do not readily recognise people from photos either)
- Ask them prior to the meeting what they will be wearing.
- Sometimes you will find that the more often you see someone, the better you will be able to recognise their face.
- Prosopagnosia is nothing to be ashamed of – it is part of your neurology. I once read that many Autistic people process human faces in the same way that we process objects in our brains. When you think about it, a lot of tables look the same! It is something we can raise understanding around through discussing it and helping others know it exists and it doesn’t mean we dislike people – it’s just that our brain might not hold their face quite as clearly as others’ brains might do.