The title of this post is something I often feel like saying. I struggle to remember faces. I have something called prosopagnosia or face blindness. This is not exclusive to autistic people but, like sensory processing disorder, it is something many of us experience. The part of my brain which processes faces is apparently the same as the part of other people’s brain which recognises inanimate objects. I like to think of it this way: I have come across a lot of tables in my life. Some of them I have really liked but it is a rare table that will stick in my mind for more than a short while.
My prosopagnosia is probably on the more severe end of things as I forget most people’s faces. If someone is particularly distinctive I might remember them but often even distinctive-looking people change part of their appearance like their hair colour and I get totally thrown. If I know two people who look similar I also have difficulty. In school there were two girls who I couldn’t tell apart and both of them were bullies and they were friends with each other. It was a nightmare! People didn’t understand that someone couldn’t remember faces and they all thought me a total weirdo. Years later and I was in a documentary and an art show at a major gallery. Both opportunities were similar in my mind and the curator form the gallery and the movie director looked very similar and had similar dress sense. I remember spending a twenty minute conversation with one or other of them trying to figure out who I was talking to!
In the past I thought my inability to remember faces was shameful. It was almost a sign that I was rude and unkind in my mind, despite that not being the case at all. I had difficulty accepting and embracing my autism for some years and I thought prosopagnosia was an autism-related thing. I was quite ashamed of it and saw it as a failing. I wanted to remember people’s faces so much but it was just impossible. I would try and figure out who people were from context. This only worked some of the time and a lot of times I just had conversations with people who my brain rendered essentially strangers unless they dropped a nugget of information into the conversation which would enable recognition.
A few years ago I started to see things differently. I started to tell people that I had issues remembering faces. They would usually look a bit puzzled and chime in with ‘Yes I forget names’ which is a different mental process I think. My understanding is that most people are wired to recognise other people. I think prosopagnosia is a neurological divergence whereas forgetting names is more related to memory and association.
It actually was quite liberating to be able to ‘admit’ that I forget faces and not have to try and figure out who someone is from context. It is also doing others a favour by explaining prosopagnosia to people which will make it easier for anyone else who has it when they meet them.
I have noticed some interesting things about my facial recognition. I can remember some faces very well. Doing a little unpacking of this and I discovered that the people I will find it hardest it remember are those with cis gendered presentation and expression. If someone’s expression / presentation is androgynous and gender non-conforming I am a lot more likely to remember them! I have no idea why that might be the case but it is interesting.
Now I am quite well-known in the autistic community and the Disabled community there are a lot of people who know me and I have never met them. This is a bit worrying for me as I don’t know whether I am supposed to know who they are or not. These days I usually just say ‘Sorry, I don’t remember faces’ or ‘have I met you before?’ and that makes it a lot easier.
I think the key for me to get to a place where my prosopagnosia was manageable was that point at which I realised I couldn’t ‘fix’ my facial recognition and that I needed to accept it and be OK with discussing it with others. So yes, I have no idea who you are but that is OK. I will tell you and you can remind me and then I’ll know.