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  • Laura Webb

Lack of imagination, or face-blind?

Contrary to the stereotype of autistic people having poor imagination and being kind of robotic, possibly with savant-style memory capabilities, many of us do not have skills in those areas. I wanted to write about my own experience as it may help others to identify their own or loved-ones support needs.

When is a familiar face not a familiar face?

I had an embarrassing moment the other day, which is one of many involving not recognising someone I’ve met before. On looking back at my life right back to early childhood, I figured out what caused it. I have great difficulties remembering faces, and names.

This is a difficulty experienced to some degree by a large number of autistic people, which you may not have heard talked about as much as other issues such as social interaction difficulties or difficulties with eye contact. I’m talking about Face-Blindness, or Prosopagnosia. This is the inability to recognise other people’s faces, or in extreme cases, to recognise one’s own face.

I am lucky in that I am able to recognise myself or members of my family when I see them. But ask me to describe my husband when he is not in the room, and I will struggle massively because I cannot hold an image of people in my head. This may be a combination of prosopagnosia and Aphantasia, the inability to create an image in one’s mind. But whatever you want to name it, it has caused difficulties my entire life.

Face-Blindness through the years

When I was in the Infants at Primary School, my mum’s best friend had a very similar haircut and coat to my own mum. I can remember at least once running up to the wrong mum in the playground and feeling very confused. I remember difficulties describing my grandmother in a piece of writing at primary school because I could not remember her clearly enough, even though we used to visit her regularly.

When reading books, I have always been able to picture the scenery as described, but I cannot picture the characters, no matter how well the description has been written. If I try really hard to picture their faces, all I see in my mind’s eye is a collection of individual features which my brain tries hard to assemble into the right places. But it’s usually a bit of a blur.

Mr Potato Head says to Ham: Hey look, I'm Picasso! His facial features are out of alignment as in a painting by Picasso.
Toy Story's Picasso joke was a little close to the mark!

I find it easier to remember children’s faces and names than those of adults. Perhaps because children come in a greater variety of shapes and sizes, or perhaps because I have spent plenty of time in their company. Whatever the reason, I tend to remember my daughter’s friends more easily than their parents.

Coping with the embarrassment

But the most embarrassing feature of my difficulties is my inability to retain faces unless I see the person extremely regularly. This works in conjunction with my poor short-term memory, which is bad at remembering names. It feels as if my brain has conspired against me to find the most awkward way to operate! I have had to employ all kinds of strategies to get around my memory issues, but unless I have a pen and paper in my hand, I may not be able to use any of them at the right moment.

Some of my most embarrassing face-blindness / poor memory issues include: introducing myself to our next door neighbour more than once (after we had been living there for more than two months); totally failing to realise that I knew someone when I saw them in a different context to their usual one; and not realising that the lady I had been talking to for ages whilst waiting for our daughters to finish at Brownies had in fact met me some years previously when our girls were little. I have arranged to meet up with friends in cafes and pubs and walked straight past them as I didn’t know it was them.

I may come across sometimes as aloof, but in reality I am trying desperately to figure out from people’s clothes, haircuts or voices whether or not I have seen them before. It also makes watching films or long-running series very difficult as I can’t always recognise who is who. Actors who look very similar to other actors in the same genre of films confuse me enormously. Similarly, if I am used to seeing someone in make-up, seeing them without can throw me rather, or vice versa.

Most of the time I cope pretty well with my face-blindness difficulties, and can laugh about it to some extent. But there are times when it is definitely not funny. The death of my grandparents a number of years ago made me realise that I cannot remember what they look like without looking at photos. I can sort of picture the photos if I concentrate hard enough, but the same brain jumble of features rather than being able to see the actual faces holds me back. I have lost other family members more recently, who I am also unable to remember clearly. I live in fear of something happening to my daughter, husband or parents and being unable to describe them clearly to anyone, or to be able to remember what they look like.

Strangely, when I dream I can sometimes picture faces, but in my conscious thoughts it is not something my brain allows me to do. My brain can be very frustrating at times!

Strategies I use

Having given you the bad news about how difficult it can be, here are some of the strategies I have used over the years to cope:

  • I used to help at a children’s after-school club, and needed to know who was who. I quickly figured out that if I volunteered to take the register and subs at the beginning, the children would have to tell me their names. The repeated action of meeting the same children and ticking off their names every week led to me being able to recognise pretty much every single child there.

  • I look at people’s hair, mannerisms, clothes and how they move. Everyone is different. Often this works, although if there is more than one person with similar appearance then that can make it harder. Also, if people change their appearance then that means I have to start again.

  • I write everything down as soon as possible. This does not help the face-blindness, but helps to mitigate the worst of the short-term memory problems. I actually didn’t realise for years how bad my memory actually was as I was in the habit of taking notes, particularly at work, so that I could refer back to them later. This has been the most helpful workaround to date.

  • I keep lists in helpful places. We have a perpetual shopping list on our fridge which is updated every time we run out of things. I like lists for packing to go away, or things I must remember to do. I am planning on writing another blog post on all kinds of strategies I use for everyday life, so watch this space!

For more strategies on coping with face-blindness, you may find this list helpful from Prosopagnosia Research.

Laura Webb is a Director of NeonDaisy


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