Prosopagnosia (from the blog The faceless horror of Prosopagnosia)


As with much of my recently revealed Aspie neurology, this trait has been a part of my life since before I popped into this world (though I was unaware until recently). However, unlike the other neurodiversity features of my grey matter, this 'face blindness' was mild, and only really freaked me out when it worsened recently (due in my case to the progress of my Developmental Prosopagnosia). This isn't to say that I wasn't impaired by the milder form, just that I had always had it, so had no frame of reference to suggest otherwise.

As I was growing, I was aware that I had a weird problem with my memory. Although I had continuous and faultless memory, I could never maintain people's faces in my memory. Nor could I associate names with people, nor would I recognise people 'out of context'. By this, I mean that if I bumped into someone whom I knew well, while shopping, I would not know who they were. I would have a strong feeling that I knew this person really well, but unless we were where we normally were together, I had no idea who it would be. It turns out according to the underconnectivity theory of autism that the Aspie brain is unlike the non-Aspie in that for NTs the back of the brain is synchronised with the front, but not so in the Aspie brain. This results in the generic face recognition aspect of the brain (which is why people see faces in toast, or animals in the clouds) is disconnected from the memory and experience portion of the brain. This means that while a face might be recognised as a face, there is no emotional contact with it. Sadly, this is a natural feature of the brain (in developmental prosopagnosia) so is not something that can be trained... there exists no connection to improve. Now while prosopagnosia, which though robbing the sufferer of recognising faces, isn't normally revealed to the aspie, this is because there are other hints that are used... such as posture, voice, etc. So for non-prosopagnostics for whom the face is the primal means of recognising someone with posture, voice, distinguishing characteristics as  additional confirmation, for the Aspie these 'secondary' identifying features are all that we have. This means that the Aspie will 'recognise' others much like others do (s)he, but while others 'know' people by their faces, the Aspie is wholly dependent on the other factors. So if someone changes their hairstyle, hair colour, fashion sense etc., an NT will see their friend with a new hair-do, but to the Aspie, the person they know has gone, and been replaced by a stranger. Worse still, this might be interpreted as an imposter. So next time an Aspie child throws a tantrum, consider what is happening to them... it is as if to an NT a stranger has dressed in the friend's clothes and is wearing their hair and make-up and pretending to be the friend. This is what the child could well be experiencing.

I came to learn pretty quickly my 'problem', if not the reason, and learned various coping strategies. These came in handy when I became a teacher, as there was no way I could remember any pupil. This did not mean that I did not know who was good, where and how, or had done etc., but that I was unable to attach the experience to a face nor a name. This was a challenge. I resolved this by having the kids choose their seats... and then stick to them. I had a floor plan for each lesson taped to my desk, with name, picture and reference. I could associate the reference with our relationship, and therefore to the person sat in front of me. I like to think I managed to fool all the kids I taught... though I think I just came over as odd or eccentric, especially as I never used their names in corridors, playground, etc. despite clearly knowing them. Of course, I became a good friend to many, and so was able to remember them out of context, and still maintain contact with them.

So as with my other as-yet-unidentified neurology, I had adapted. But this was before this particular feature progressed (at the time only for a few weeks). It totally freaked me out. Suddenly every face on TV, film, DVD, etc. was replaced. It was almost as if everyone had over-photoshopped their faces so now looked like CGI versions of themselves. Naturally I thought it was my TV playing up (like the original plasma TVs with ghosting) but on getting a new one had the same issue. I concluded that as everyone had changed, they must all be using a new foundation to hide wrinkles and lines for vanity on HD. And that this cream was being used on everyone...woman, man, and child. Which meant it must be a new common ingredient to all make-ups. It made no sense, but there was no alternative. Now luckily, this happened as an adult and I was able to rationalise an explanation. Still, it was a terrifying experience but would be infinitely better than if it had happened as a child.

What were once windows to the soul were now just shapes. I cannot begin to explain how this changed my day-to-day living. Imagine walking out one morning, and everyone now had a generic face, such as in The Face of Another (or if you watch Doctor Who, the episode: The End of Time, where the Master takes over everyone's body and everyone on earth has his face on their bodies). Now imagine looking into a mirror and seeing a stranger's non-face. Now imagine that no face ever returns. So if you think that your Aspie friend/child/partner is 'over-reacting' or 'acting out' and responding correspondingly, think first what they might be experiencing. Simply putting on glasses, wearing a hood, or pulling hair across your face could well help. And if you are going to change your hair, get a tattoo or piercing etc., please consider warning your Aspie friend what to expect before meeting them. Oh yes, and to be extra helpful adopt what most people do on the phone... introduce yourself as soon as you meet.

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