Prosopagnosia and Asperger’s in the Family

Prosopagnosia

When an average person meets 10 strangers, they can recall at least six of the new faces in the future. Two percent of the population does not have this facial recognition skill–they have prosopagnosia, or face blindness. My father is one of many on the autism spectrum living with face blindness.

In 1975, prosopagnosia caused the only lingering conflict in my parent’s marriage.

Mom, who became frustrated with her long hair tangling in her scuba diving apparatus, decided to go for a hip white-girl afro.  Dad was supportive until she returned from the salon.

Her transformation confounded him.  Dad spent the next six weeks giving her the side-eye, trying to wrap his mind around her frizzy not-my-wife locks.

Mom Hairstyles

Dad could not articulate why the change disturbed  him, but it did. At night, I heard them deliberate through the heating ducts:

“You look beautiful, Meem.  But it’s just not…you… The long dark hair is you. ”

“It’s not about beauty; it’s about me being tired of ripping my hair out on those goddamned regulators. I’m done with it. And I’m not braiding my (expletive) hair. That’s ridiculous. Then I’m yanking a whole braid out of my (unprintable) regulator….”

Mom felt fabulous with her new carefree hair but eventually realized something was awry—it was out of character for Dad to oppose her personal style choices.  Two frizzy perms looks later, she begrudgingly twisted her hair into tight, Miley Cyrus buns.

Problem solved!

We know about Dad’s face blindness now. Years of experience plus an Asperger’s diagnosis sorted it out for us.  We grasp at last why certain movies are hard for him to follow (how can you understand what’s going on when you can’t tell people apart?) and why large crowds disorient him (all blondes are the same person!).

Dad’s experiences clued us in to our son’s struggles with prosopagnosia. Tyoma has no sinister intentions when he insists I wipe off my lipstick.  The lipstick simply renders me unrecognizable as “Mama.” To this day, my hair is never over-curled, lest the whole family revolt, griping and complaining until I straighten and smooth my locks.

Hooray

Prosopagnosia!

What a lovely excuse to remain forever unmade and unkempt!

Like my Dad and Tyoma, many on the autism spectrum are affected by face blindness.

In fact, those with moderate face blindness might not realize the extent of their inability to properly code and retrieve faces until they uncover the marvelous coping mechanisms they use to compensate.

If adults like my father and me stumble upon their facial recognition difficulties late in life, imagine the struggle children must face when they have prosopagnosia.

The sooner we identify prosopagnosia in children, the swifter we can offer supports and teach facial navigation skills. If your child is on the autism spectrum, these signs can help you recognize face blindness:

  1. Distress or aggression over changes in a family or friend’s appearance.
  2. Misidentifying people based clothing, hairstyle, height, or weight.
  3. A strong preference for cartoons or animal shows in conjunction with an aversion to live television programs/movies.
  4. Anxiety in daycare/school settings combined with a clinginess to teacher (children are the same age and size, whereas the adults are more recognizable).
  5. Fear of crowded areas.
  6. Confusing caretakers for others with similar hair or clothing.

Part two of this article will focus on coping strategies. Your stories and input are very welcome!

 
A silhouette of Mom before her haircut. If you look into the faint stream of bubbles rising from her air regulator, you can see her hair floating.

   

Taking the Famous Faces Test From Musings on an Aspie
Prosopagnosia–Face Blindness in Action From Autistic Aloha

38 responses

  1. This is so interesting and informative! You’ve sort of clued me in to how much I’m affected by my own prosopagnosia…

    I was shocked when I read the statistic: “When an average person meets 10 strangers, they can recall at least six of the new faces in the future”. I had no idea most people could do that – there’s no way I ever could. At most, I might be able to remember 2 or 3.

    I also have the same thing with movies as your Dad does – some are hard to follow because I can’t tell who’s who (especially if they’re all wearing suits or uniforms). And as a kid, I also preferred movies and shows with animals over those with people. And I’ve often been unable to recognize aquaintences if I see them out of context or don’t see them regularly.

    I’m looking forward to part 2 and the coping strategies!

    • Thank you so much! I have moderate prosopagnosia myself. We’ve known about Dad for years, but as you said, it can be hidden because there are many work-arounds. I have gravitated to art house movies and avoided ensemble cast movies for most of my life because I just could not tell everyone apart. I can recognize movie star faces quiet well but that takes hours of watching the same movie again and again. Do you recall the movie “Inception?” I had no idea what happened throughout that entire movie or the Matric Movies either! It’s so reassuring to know I’m not alone in my experiences! Thanks for visiting with me! :)

      • Yes, I’ve watched Inception a few times actually. The first time I couldn’t tell a few of the main characters apart and had no idea what was going on. After the 3rd or 4th time watching it, I began to finally be able to recognize them. The Matrix movies are a different story though – I can barely follow those. I can only recognize Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus. Everyone else is just a blur!

        • Ha! Same here with the Matrix! Hollywood keeps in mind that having a recognizable actor means box office success. I think of all the super-hero movies–the plots are less than stellar but it’s great being able to rely on fantastic costumes to know who is who! :)

  2. Pingback: Prospagnosia (in a critical family) | Merely Quirky

  3. So true. As a kid, I attended very small school system (about 45 kids/grade) which helped, but still, the ones who weren’t in my class (and seated near me): forget about it. And because so many school kids wear indistinguishable hair and clothes, I mostly talked to the oddballs who stood out. I can’t even ID cars, except by license plate….

    [...ok, my comment got really really long, so I posted it over here, where some formatting helps break it up a bit:

    http://merelyquirky.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/prospagnosia-in-a-critical-family/

    Thanks for your patience]

    • Thank you! I replied to your post on your blog. You are always welcome to leave long comments, but I am glad that an article came out of it for you!

      Cheers!
      Lori D.

  4. Beautiful post (no surprise).

    I don’t have face blindness, although telling strangers apart isn’t my strong side – or keeping track of the plot in older James Bond movies, with their habit of casting look-alikes in most of the roles (including both the Good Guy & the Bad Guy). However, your description of how your dad couldn’t relate properly to you mom when she changed her hair style resonates with me, I can easily imagine how he felt.

     
    Ps. I love the visual evolution of this blog, it is a lovely and fascinating visual experience to land on, both the post(s) and the visual boxes and features below and the overall visual balance of everything.

  5. Our son is not on the autism spectrum but he has prosopagnosia. His results from right hemisphere brain damage very early in life. The signs you describe are right on though! We saw all of these in him; it just took us 10 years and finally getting with a really good neuropsychologist to figure it out! Thanks for your great post!

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experiences–it’s valuable to have many experiences to share. Many feel that a large part of the social difficulty of the autism spectrum comes from prosopagnosia in conjunction with other neurological issues. I am glad to hear your journey took you to a better understanding of your son.

  6. All blonde women look the same to me too, especially actresses. I’m constantly annoying my husband during movies by asking him who some minor (or major) character is. I’m terrible at recognizing people I know when I encounter them unexpectedly. Sometimes I don’t even recognize my own daughter in a crowd. We were at a museum a few months ago and I was suddenly startled by a woman standing way too close to me until I realized it was Jess and she was holding my coat, which she’d just gone to fetch from the coat check. It’s such a strange sensation to suddenly flip from total unrecognition to “oh I gave birth to this person.” :-)

    • Wow! I totally relate to movies and getting confused, I do the same thing to my husband, but alas, he does not know either! I can remember faces, but it takes me forever. I remember one of your articles you wrote during your diagnosis, concerning not recognizing the doctor’s assistant. Same here! Context helps a good deal, yet, name tags help even more! :)

  7. I wouldn’t say I had total face-blindness, but it will take a while for me to remember/recognise new faces, and I do tend to inadvertently recognise people (especially new people) by clothes or hair. I remember one evening where I introduced myself to the same guy twice because he’d taken his jumper off by the second time I saw him, which couldn’t have been longer than 20 minutes later. He saw the funny side, though. :)

    • Ha! I can imagine the jumper incident! What a cool guy! It’s such a joy when people are accepting and jovial about differences. Last year we had a flurry of school meetings about my son and it was so disorienting. I introduced myself by default. One lady wore a jewel tone mandarin collared jacket to two meetings in a row. I expressed my excitement over this so now she wears it to every meeting we have together. :D

  8. Lovely post – many thanks, it was linked from a faceblindness group. I’m intrigued by the connection with autism – I have both, my family has quite a history of asd but no-one else has faceblindness. Do you know if there have been any studies that link the two?

    • Thank you so much, Andrew. Please forgive my late response, I am too easily addled! Research exists on the connection between autism spectrum disorders and prosopagnosia. Unfortunately, it is inconsistent. What I noticed were many references to the two co-occurring with percentages between 20-40%. Tracking down specific studies was hard without subscriptions to online medical journals. Even at a minimum of 20%, that is still higher for the incidence of the general population which is about 1%. If I find anything else, I’ll reply to this thread. Thank you again for sharing with me and I hope to find more specific information for you.

      Lori D.

  9. I have some form of this myself, although I think it is complicated by my poor depth perception. I’m not very good at remembering houses, either. Even if I have visited someone’s house many times, I still need to double check the house number because I can’t remember what the house looks like!

    • Thank you Ann, for your comment! It is very interesting that you mention both the depth perception and difficulty remembering houses. In my research I read that prosopagnosia is often associated with difficulty in recalling geographic landmarks. It seems to be some sort of an error in being able to generalize all the features of a whole into a specific local/identity. My Dad very strongly has this difficulty, whereas I do not. I do have depth perception problems as well as not being able to tell left from right. I have to think every single time which is right and which is left. If someone chopped off my left hand (which makes an “L”) I’d be confused for life!

      Thank you for sharing with me and I apologize for ridiculous lateness of my response!

      Cheers!
      Lori

    • Thank you so much! I appreciate the link to the article. Good grief that is disturbing, and not just from the point of view that the women have had so much work done to attain a specific ideal. I find uniformity of faces to be unsavory. I like the diversity of nostrils, eyebrows, teeth, and bones that make our faces unique. So many lovely faces don’t connect to me as people. They are like advertisements, banners for an incomprehensible product–minds as uniform as the image they portray. I appreciate the link and thoughts it generated! :)

  10. I am willing to bet I have this, at least mildly. I always have difficulty recognizing faces, and I have to give myself a way tell certain people apart, like “This person has WHITE hair, and this person has BLOND hair,” or “Remember this person is a little taller than this person.” In crowded places, I will sometimes even mistake strangers for close friends or family members.

    • Thank you Angel and forgive my lateness. I think many of us use similar strategies. It’s interesting that you mention you confuse people. I do the same thing myself. I don’t understand the mechanism, but perhaps I attribute certain facial feature with an identity and then everyone with those specific features become that person. Crowded places are the worst, because the sheer number of people is disorienting–so much stimulation! I need quiet for my brain to figure certain things out!

  11. Pingback: In the News – November 2013 | The PsychoJenic Archives

  12. The movie that still kills me with this is The Departed. It’s kind of a confusing movie anyway of course, the idea being that you’re not sure who is really working for who. But when you add in not being able to tell any of them apart with their identical hair and facial hair and fake Boston accents…nope. Just nope. I even had the advantage of having seen the original a few years earlier (from Hong Kong I think?), but of course the American version changed subtle details to give it an extra twist…so it was hopeless.

    I have a group of “attractive male movie stars” in my head. If I see one of them on tv or on in a photo, I know it’s someone from that group, but I have no idea who. Leo Dicaprio, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Marky Mark, even George Clooney depending on his hair and whether they have him made up to look older or younger. It’s completely baffling.

    • You are a brave soul! I avoid heist movies because I can’t figure out who’s who or doing what. I love Asian Cinema, but I can only keep track of character’s by hair style. I also have a group of stars in my head–I remember them because I have logged hours watching them in movies. I can keep track of them rather easily. I’m not 100% face blind but it takes me much longer to recognize people. My next post is about this.

      Thanks for visiting with me!

      Lori D.

  13. My mind is officially blown right now. We have been struggling for months now with my son’s obsession of fixing my hair (making sure my ponytail doesn’t fall in front of my shoulders), which he quickly extended to other women, total strangers, whose hair he has to “fix.” Some of this makes perfect sense now in light of your post…99% of the time my hair is in a tight bun and he has grown accustomed to how “mom” looks. And he has so many therapists and teachers that must look identical to him, he is likely trying to make sure they stay the same as when he met them….wow, I am really looking forward to part two!!

    • Please forgive my late response! I get easily overwhelmed and confused at times!

      Thank you so much for sharing your revelation with me. Your son sounds much like Tyoma! The “mom” hairstyle is so salient he generalizes to others. For a long time any brunette man was papa! T still gets a touch confused today. Part two is almost done. I appreciate knowing that I could be of help!

      Cheers,
      Lori D.

  14. I think, based on this and other sources, that I have mild face-blindness. It takes time and exposure for me to be able to reliably recognise people. I would certainly never fail to recognise a loved one, and I do recognise certain actors when I see them in different things, sometimes even if they have a different hair style/colour (but if they have a beard now, no chance) but some movies have been confusing for me because I had trouble telling two or more actors apart. Terminator Salvation springs to mind. There was also one incident IRL which was pretty awful. I was doing my work experience and two of the people in charge of me where white women with long brown hair. One of them told me to do something or other, and when the other later told me to stop and asked why I was doing it I perceived it as her jerking me around and yelled at her that she was the one who told me to do it in the first place. It was… not good.

    It’s also a very awkward disability for a white person to have. I admit to being a little defensive on the subject, and very glad that my face-blindness anecdotes almost all involve white people.

    • Helen, I am much like you myself. I can still recognize people I am exposed to daily, but it takes more time for me to properly code/learn new faces. I suspect that prosopagnosia is a continuum, with a range of coding abilities. My mom can recall anyone instantly and likewise recognize voices. I am fortunate to have never worked in an environment where I could be easily confused. My biggest problem to date is telling all my son’s teacher’s/paraeducators/etc. apart.

      I understand what you mean about working with other races and cultures, it would easily seem that a face blind person was being insensitive or inappropriate, when it is a global problem. Thank you very much for visiting with me. :)

      Lori D.

  15. Pingback: Ever wondered WHY I am so socially awkward | End Autism Stigma

  16. As a child, if my mother woke me in the morning without her lipstick on, I would say “You’re invisible”. It upset me. In my 50s now, if my (female) boss wears large black sunglasses I take fright because I don’t know whether she’s happy with my work or not. She makes me angry like that but the rest of the time we get on well. I tend to focus on the wrong part of a face in conversation (Klin did some great research on why autistic people do this) or fixate on just one part for too long. Thanks for an excellent blog!

    • Thank you for the time you took to share your experience! You make an interesting point about focusing on the “wrong part” of the face. My eyes are always drawn to the mouth. It seems to mesh well with my need to interpret words, not emotions, which tend to live in the eyes. I think many on the spectrum rest their eyes there as well–I have research about it somewhere. Perhaps another post on the topic is impending!

  17. Now you’ve really got me thinking…. I am wondering if my grandson deals with this and we didn’t know what it was/is. I need to get my daughter-in-law to read this too,

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