There is a bit of a difference between true Face Blindness and Difficulty with Facial Recognition. I tend to use “Face Blindness” as a blanket term for both, but I’ll go ahead and make a brief clarification. I’ve seen documentaries where someone with actual face blindness has absolutely no idea who a face belongs to without any sort of cue. For example, people were asked to identify head shots of others they would normally know or recognize, but the pictures were of faces only: no hair, clothes, etc., just faces. Some people could not even identify family members they see daily/regularly. This is what face blindness is supposed to mean.
In my life, I tend to incorrectly call my trouble with facial recognition “face blindness”. I wanted to make the distinction that I recognize there is a difference, but when I explain something to others, it’s easier for me to use that term. Now, what do I mean when I say I have trouble with facial recognition?
I noticed that others on the spectrum can have either one of these issues, so I wanted to share my perspective on it. First, I am going to discuss my facial troubles, for lack of a better term.
One of the common and widely-accepted symptoms or criteria for autism has to do with lack of eye contact. For us on the spectrum, it’s just something we tend to naturally avoid, and have to practice maintaining what appears to be a level of interest. Not all of us struggle with this, but many do. Maintaining eye contact in conversation lets others know we are listening and paying attention. When we fail to do so, or avoid eye contact, others perceive us as non-engaged. It can be frustrating for others who do not realize we are paying attention, as well as for us, who have to constantly be reminded (or in some cases reprimanded).
I remember one scenario that really embarrassed me and I believe it related to this issue. (I’m getting off subject, but bear with me.) During one of my classes in college, the instructor kept calling my name in class. I would look up, confused, wondering what I did. She would look confused too, and asked if I was paying attention or following along. I never had trouble in any other class but this one in particular. I was always one to take lots of notes in my classes, and I thought perhaps she was concerned that I was doing something else instead of writing. I would always respond, “Yes, I understand” or “Yes, I’m listening”. But, still she continued to call my name during those classes, not to ask me a question about the material or anything, and no one else was called out like that. To this day, it still puzzles and embarrasses me. But I digress…
So, eye contact is something that those of us on the spectrum struggle with. This in itself can contribute to our “face blindness”.
Please note for the remainder of this post, “face blindness” in quotations will refer to difficulty with facial recognition, and face blindness without quotations will be the actual version I described earlier.
When I say I have “face blindness”, it basically means I am unable to recall faces in my mind, when I see someone I may forget who they are, or I think the person is someone else because they look similar to another person. My biggest challenge is remembering what people look like, and I tend to forget who someone is more frequently than I would like. I will provide a few examples.
I first realized I had this problem in college. When I was younger, I did not interact with many people, and those I did see where frequent enough for me to know who they were. Or if I forgot, someone would remind me, but I attributed that to a long time passing since I last saw that person. The problem was noticeable at college when I would see a former classmate outside of class with a different hair cut, color, or style. I realized that it might have been a few months since I’ve seen them, but I should have been able to remember who they were. This troubled me, because how many other people were passing me by and waving, and I had no clue who they were? As long as someone kept the same hairstyle I realized that I would remember them. But once that changed, I was completely lost. They would look familiar but I feared that they were someone else, and I began to question myself as to who I knew and who I didn’t.
Now, if I really know a face well enough, this isn’t an issue. I can figure out if someone is in a wig, changed their hair, clothes, etc. But not always. In fact, something very close to me is a constant struggle when it comes to differentiating.
My mother has a good friend who has a very similar hair style and color. They both wear glasses, are about the same height, and roughly the same size, at least I seem to think so. When they are together, I mix them up all the time, but I have to really pay attention and look directly at them before I realize who is who. If I were to see images of their faces, I would know which was which. But in being around them, I really can’t tell… especially if they are wearing the same color clothes! Apparently I’m the only one that gets them mixed up, because when we are in a group with others, everyone else seems to know who is who.
I also had some very good friends who were twins. I could tell which was which (this is very surprising, isn’t it??) while others could not. They had very similar faces but their body structure was a bit different. They each carried themselves differently. They had slight changes in their faces I could identify, and usually I didn’t even have to think about it.
Why could I so easily differentiate between twins, and not my mother and her friend?
Notice, when I said that I looked at the faces, I could tell who was who, in both circumstances. I was used to the twins being together, and had to learn how to identify each one. I’m not around my mom’s friend as often, and I don’t pay attention that there is a need to differentiate. My mind just picks one and sometimes I’m wrong. It’s just a matter of paying attention. I don’t not know what each of them look like, but my awareness is low.
On another note, I used to be a huge fan of Star Trek, especially the original series. (More on that will come later, I’m sure.) You could easily say I was obsessed with the show, so I am very familiar with all the characters. I don’t watch Star Trek hardly at all any more, mostly because I think I burned myself out on it, but I am still a fan. Recently I was watching the original “The Twilight Zone” featuring William Shatner (Captain Kirk) on airplane. I had seen this episode before, knew who he was, and so on. Those of you familiar with these shows probably know they aired not too terribly far from each other, either.But, even though I knew exactly who I was watching,in a few scenes, I realized that, had I NOT previously known who the actor was, I would not have recognized his face. This puzzled me, because as a huge Trekkie,I wondered why this was. You can probably imagine that this also happens when actors drastically dress up for different roles… unless I recognize the voice or something very, very obvious, I usually have to be told who the actor is. This is just another manifestation of my “face blindness” and how it unexpectedly pops up in daily life.
Going back to “face blindness”, it takes me a very long time before I can recall a face in my mind. And even then, it is distorted. I am often surprised when I see someone’s face I know very well, and it looks different from how I remembered them days, hours, or moments ago. It’s as if the data for how someone looks gets distorted, or foggy, in my brain. This is very confusing, especially out in public by myself… who knows how many people I see in the stores and I “ignore” because I fear they aren’t someone I know?
In many cases, I will send them a message or text later asking, “Was that you?” to which they usually respond, “Yeah! I was there!” Sometimes I wish people would just come up to me and say “Hi! I’m ….” because that would really, really help.
For me, context is crucial. If I see someone outside of where I think they belong, it throws me off very badly. I have no clue who a familiar face belongs to if seen out of the normal setting. This is probably true for most NT’s, I imagine. But generally I try to just smile and small-talk, and hope I get some sort of clue as to who I am speaking with.
The best reason I can come up with for myself, is that people tend to fall under very generic categories I file them under. Unfortunately, I don’t have the words to describe these categories, or someone may take offense to me “filing” people, but it helps me with the identification process. I usually sort by hair, which is a very poor choice since that is something that is very likely to change frequently, especially with females. Then I try to go with build, shape, skin tone, personality that can be seen on the face (what mood is this person most likely to be in), or I look for some really unique characteristic I will be able to identify with. Does this person have a mole, spot, or mark on their face I can easily refer to if need be? These are just some of the ways I try to remember who people are, but again, the actual face itself eludes me as to how people identify each other normally. If you were to ask me to recall what color eyes someone has, I usually don’t know. Or how big or small their nose is? I don’t know. How far apart are their eyes? Not sure…
This, I believe, all falls under the umbrella of lack of eye contact. I don’t really look at a person very much and even when I do, I’m probably not seeing their face, but just being self conscious. Why?
There are two main reasons those of us on the spectrum avoid eye contact, from what I understand:
1. There is too much information received from the other person. Looking into the eyes gives the autistic person an overflow of information that they can’t fully process. It is a bombardment and is too overwhelming to maintain.
2. There is too much information coming out, or the belief that there is. This is the one I fall under, and I have the overwhelming sensation that eye contact pours out all of my information to the other person. I immediately become extremely self conscious and want to hide my face because people tell me they can read me much better than I think. This is absolutely frightening.
Either way has to do with information overload, whether that is giving or receiving. I believe that lack of eye contact is a form of self defense. Autistic people are highly sensitive to their surroundings. I believe that eye contact is no different. After all, it is said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Some of us just don’t want to see all of that, or give it away.
Over time, I have learned to kind of roll with my lack of eye contact in conversation. I try to watch the other person’s face when they are speaking to me, but I also look away very frequently, then return to looking again. When I’m speaking to a person, I tend not to look directly at them. In fact I will look all over the place except at their face. However, I do check back now and then to see if they are understanding me. It is very complicated because I have to force myself to go back and look in a number of times that won’t seem too odd or distracting to the other person. Those who are familiar with my Asperger’s understand what I’m doing, thankfully.
In conclusion, there is no real answer to face blindness, or “face blindness” from this post. I’m sure others on the spectrum can relate in some way, though their experiences will probably be slightly different. My goal here is to explain where I am coming from, and continue building that bridge between the average reader, and those of us on the spectrum.