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Face Blindness/Prosopagnosia

People with face blindness (also called Prosopagnosia) have a difficult time identifying people. Most people identify people by remembering other people's faces. People with face blindness don't seem to be able to do this, and thus must rely on other physical traits.

How I Recognize People

I recognize people by three primary methods - general body size/shape, hair, and the sound of their voice. These three methods are not nearly as effective as the normal way of recognizing people - by recognizing a face. Thus, I often mistake someone I don't know for someone that I do know or I fail to recognize someone I know. For instance, I have been unable to recognize my father on multiple occasions, since his body size and shape are not very distinctive, nor does he have long or distinctive hair.

The Autism Connection

I am also autistic. While there is not much research on face blindness in autistics, it seems to be a very common occurrence for us. We may be the largest segment of people born with face blindness. The condition of face blindness is very uncommon in the general population, yet seems very common to autistics. Several autistics that I know are face blind, while I don't personally know any non-autistic who is face blind (although it is possible for a non-autistic to be face blind).

What Do You See?

When I look at a face, I see the same thing that I suspect you do. My vision works fine (other then some autistic difficulties that aren't relevant to this discussion). My brain sees a face much like any other object. The problem I have is in associating that face with a particular person I know. This association is done in a area of the brain separate from the normal vision processing center - it appears to be done in a highly specialized area of the brain, which doesn't seem to work properly for me. This area of the brain doesn't contribute to how you "see", but simply how you associate faces with people you know. So, damage to this area of the brain will not affect a person's sight, but the person will find himself at a disadvantage when trying to recognize other people.

Strangely, I am much better then the normal population at recognizing faces that are upside-down. According to research, this is because the brain does not recognize an upside-down face as a face - thus it is processed by the same brain center as normal objects. The object processing center of my brain seems to work fine, so I only have the most trouble when the face is sent instead to the face processing center - which doesn't work in my brain. This is also why I do very well at recognizing people if they have a lot of hair, especially facial hair - the facial hair can cause the brain to not recognize the object as a face, which allows my normal object recognition center to process the face. However, the normal object recognition center does not appear to be nearly as efficient and reliable as the facial recognition center in most people, so I still have tremendous difficulty. Besides, most people don't have enough hair for this to work, nor do they walk upside down.

Gender Recognition

I also have trouble recognizing a person's gender. Most people, including most other face blind people, can recognize the gender of a person by looking at the person's face. I can't. I rely on other cues, such as body shape, hair, beards/mustaches, and voice to determine gender. However, without the face, these methods are more error-prone. I simply don't have all the information a neurotypical has. There are quite a few people who don't have the stereotypical body shape or hair that someone of their gender normally has - and I don't always have the benefit of hearing someone's voice before having to make a preliminary gender identification.

Age Determination

I also problems determining how old someone is. I can usually determine someone's age within ten years either younger or older. Of course this leaves a 20 year range when I guess someone's age. This has caused me quite a bit of embarrassment during my life. I suspect the average NT has no idea how often they modify their behavior based on the age of the other party.

Some Experiences

In Living as an Autistic, I write about an experience where I was to meet my family after getting off an airplane. Obviously, I should be able to recognize my own father, but I wasn't able to. He had cut his hair and trimmed his beard, so I wasn't able to recognize him. In fact, I walked right past him - even though I was looking for him.

Recently, I went to a class where I did not know any of the other students. Since the teacher was going to go around the room and have each student introduce themselves, I decided to try to guess the gender of each student before the student introduced him or herself. Out of 8 students, I guessed wrong on two students' genders (I can tell gender by voice relatively easily).

The age determination problem isn't as big of a problem in adult life as it is in childhood, so I'll relate a childhood story. When I was 15, I went to a dance. At this dance, asked a 11 year old to dance with me, thinking that she was my own age. Other people there obviously had no problem figuring out her age, as they made sure I felt humiliated.

How Can You Help?

One common complaint about face blind people is that we often walk right past people we know without saying a word. That's because we don't recognize them. Unfortunately, many people consider that rude and insulting. Even when we do recognize others, if it often too late for us to respond - the alternative ways we have to recognize people are much slower then the "normal" way to do so. So, people can help us by greeting us instead of expecting us to greet them! I am fairly good at recognizing voices, so I will probably know who you are if you say "hi".

Don't be insulted if I misidentify you. It happens. I try very hard to identify you, but I am simply unable to do this much of the time. Correct me without becoming offended or making a big deal about it.

Finally, if I am in a conversation with you, and another friend comes up to us whom we both know, it is best if you mention their name immediately to help me know who they are. For instance, you might say, "Hello Bob!" This would let me know that the tall skinny person with short hair is Bob, and not some other tall skinny person with short hair!

More Information

I have written another page, Living With Face Blindness, to help autistics deal with face blindness. I've documented the techniques I use to help me handle independent living with this disability.

Some other face blind people have written about their experiences on the web. The most useful is an on-line book called Face Blind! This book was written by Bill Choisser, a face blind adult.

Another interesting page is Face-Blindness (Prosopagnosia) and Stones. This page gives the neuro-typical reader an understanding of what face blindness feels like. If you can tell faces apart, please visit this page so that you can understand a little more about what life is like for us!

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