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