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

Comments

  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!

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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!

        • A Quiet Week says:

          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!🙂

    • A Quiet Week says:

      I am recovering from taking my son to Maine. Get back to you soon! Thank you for all your thought and effort!😀

  2. merelyquirky says:

    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]

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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.

    • A Quiet Week says:

      Thank you very much Leah! My posts often take me much longer than I anticipate, but the rewards of excellent readers make every re-draft worthwhile!

  3. Mados says:

    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.

    • A Quiet Week says:

      Thank you, Mados! I especially appreciate the comment about my art. I fussed with the finished article for days, just trying to get the right look. I am glad you noticed.

      I always appreciate your visits!🙂

      Lori

  4. wsquared77 says:

    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!

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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.

  5. 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.”🙂

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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!🙂

  6. 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.🙂

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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.😀

  7. 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?

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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.

  8. 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!

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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!🙂

  9. 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.

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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!

  10. notesoncrazy says:

    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.

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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.

      • I can recognize actors who have been in tv shows that I’ve watched multiple seasons of pretty reliably, because I’ve gotten used to the way they move and talk. If they were in something really out of context though, like period pieces or something, I probably wouldn’t recognize them though. People who just do movies though, nope. Sometimes I can track them through the movie if they don’t change too much, but if there is another person with a similar haircut, or they try and disguise themselves for whatever plot purposes, I’m totally gone.

  11. 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!!

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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.

  12. Helen Damnation says:

    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.

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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.

  13. 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!

    • A Quiet Week says:

      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!

  14. cherokeewind says:

    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,

  15. Paul D. says:

    I’m a propagnostic Aspie, and those two pictures of your mother really brought my prospagnosia into sharp relief – and the ineffectiveness of my primary coping mechanism – focusing on hair (especially for women for some reason). They look like entirely different poeple to me.

    But I just read that one fix (for photographs anyway) – simply turn the photos upside down. So I copied your mothers side-by-side photos and turned them upside down. Et voila! they now look like the same person!

    I read that the reason this works is that entirely different parts and halves of the of the brain are used for human face recognition and for recognition of all other shapes and patterns (terrain, maps, animals, etc.) So by inverting the pictures, they, at some level, cease to be interpreted by the brain as people and are instead interpreted as patterns – and aspies are usually very good at pattern recognition. Unfortunately, getting this to work in social situations will be difficult – some kind of inverting lenses perhaps?

  16. flokaiser says:

    I remember telling my mom we had a substitute teacher all week. In actuality, the regular teacher had bleached her hair.
    Now as an adult, I drive my husband crazy. He loves British intrigue films. I cannot follow them because the characters are mostly long and slender with brown hair. They even all sound the same. UGH!

  17. This is so interesting! I read your description to my 17 yr old and he agrees with you totally! I never even knew it existed! We just roll our eyes at him when he asked about characters in movies!

    Where’s Part 2?

  18. This is so interesting! I just read your description to my 17 year old son and he agrees with your description totally! Right down to preferring cartoons over movies with real life actors. We just roll our eyes at him when he asks us about movies characters.

    Does this mean he’s on the spectrum? Where can I find your follow up article?

  19. Anne Roche says:

    I tend to blame my poor eye sight (it doesn’t help). I used to have such a hard time when I was younger and often met people in dark bars. I would walk back and forth looking at people and often, even though I felt like it wasn’t my friends – I just couldn’t be sure. I am pretty good at recognizing people when they are where they should be (i.e. my co-workers at work) but I find it so hard to recognize people in order places. I met a co-worker on the train yesterday and really, it could be any one of 4 people.

  20. I am suspicious I have this in a moderate way. I definitely can come to recognize people as long as they don’t drastically change their appearances, but frequently misintentify folks. I don’t even try to remember people I see everyday but don’t interact with (I work at a place with over 1,000 employees, I might know 50 after 8 years, and I don’t just mean names but recognition too, probably only 50).

    I’ve always gravitated towards people with distinctive looks and voices, which I never understood why until I started reading and suspecting prosopagnosia.

    As a kid I ran up to a total stranger in a crowd, I’d lost site of my Dad and saw the pants and shirt and just ran to him and grabbed his leg. Only the man bent down, much closer suddenly and when he spoke he simply said “why hello there” and I screamed and bolted, that wasn’t Dad! The voice was the primary giveaway. My aunt once gave my mother a makeover, and although I’d never struggled to tell them apart before, when they came out they were wearing similar outfits and makeup & hair, and I couldn’t tell them apart and effectively went mute for an hour. They thought it was hilarious but it was very distressing to me. Your primary caregiver can just disappear with an hour in a bedroom. People can’t understand how unsafe you feel as a child with disappearing randomly parents, or with a variety of people being able to sub in for them because they are wearing the same clothes. How unsafe do you feel in a world that teaches stranger danger, when literally everyone is a stranger?

    Working customer service has always been a challenge and I’m thankful I don’t do it anymore. I’d walk away to check on something and just repeat to myself things about their clothing. “white shirt blue jeans white shirt blue jeans”, if I came back out and there were two people of the same gender with the same clothes, I might be able to tell them apart on a striking feature like different hair colors, but if there were no striking differences, I’d just look for the one who was looking harder at me and go to them and start talking. This did not always work, sometimes I started telling the wrong customer the answer to a question. I always hated the ones that would walk up and say “oh we talked yesterday and…” I’d have to stop them and say, “Sorry I talked to a lot of people yesterday, can you remind me what we were talking about?” because I’d remember their situations, but not them.

    I’ve also been informed that more than a few times I picked up “stalkers”, but I never knew who they were or what they looked like, I might notice someone staring at me hard but I wouldn’t know they’d done it 50x before.

    As an adult, I still like animated movies more than others. I watch some live action movies, but lean towards movies like super hero films, because I can keep track of the main character easier. Captain America might not always be wearing his uniform, but he’s always sort of big and muscular compared to others in the film. I really like anime because not only is it animated characters, but the most important characters usually have some crazy features that are distinctive from all the other characters, like crazy hair or an amulet they always wear.

    I can keep track of main characters if they are pretty darn famous, because it’s like human flashcards. They are on TV a lot and people say their names a lot while their faces are on screen, so eventually I get to a point of recognition, although if a character looks drastically different I can lose who they are. Like I can almost always tell who Johnny Depp is, but not in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Nightmare on Elm Street. I suspect more often than not I am tipped off my mannerisms, but I can recognize his face in still photos most of the time.

    I’ve actually done a better job with recognizing people since Facebook. I see various pictures of people every day with their name written next to it, and that helps. It’s not a total fix though because people move their faces in real life, and that can throw off some of my recognition chances. Frequently in pictures, people make roughly the same face every time. I hate it when all someones facial photos are “duck face” though, because no one does it in real life so it doesn’t work. I just want to beg people to just use a friendly smile in all their photos, because the majority of people use that face when they see friends in a random unexpected time & place.

    At work, I’ve added photos of coworkers to their contact info in outlook, so every time I get an email from someone I see their picture, but I still think I’m probably relying more on things like hair, but I do noticeably better at recognition since doing that.

    I’ve also noted that I have more trouble with people who are “out of context”. I am much more likely to recognize coworkers at the office, than I am if I see them at a store. I feel like I have seperate people rolodex for different locations. I have one for work, and I have one for the store, but the work people are not in the store rolodex and it makes me uncomfortable to have to interact with someone in the wrong location because I’m flipping through these damn cards for one with your description and I cannot find it. I’m searching the wrong files. All my brunettes at the store card are not going to find the brunette from the work file. I do eventually go to, OK this store is near work, now can I find them? But the conversation is usually over before I can locate your file, because I also can’t hold a conversation very well when I’m busy searching for who you are.

    One time a guy I was dating and his mother showed up at my workplace (a store), which was an hour away from the places I was used to seeing them. I didn’t recognize the mother who I saw first, and when I saw him, I did after probably 5-10 seconds realize who he was, but it made me so uncomfortable that he was in the wrong place I acted poorly (just repeatedly asking “what are you doing here” in a slightly agitated voice), we fought about it later.

    I imagine he thought I didn’t want him around these other people (he was quick to jealousy), but that wasn’t it. I couldn’t verbalize why it made me so uncomfortable that without any warning, he was in the wrong environment and I was expected to immediately be happy to see him there. If he had told me he was coming, it would have been fine.

I ♥ Comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s