I don’t recognise people by their faces. People think this is an autism thing. It actually isn’t although a lot of autistic people share this experience. It is one of those things which I call ‘Venn diagram issues’. Sensory processing disorder is one, as well. You can have these and be autistic but they are not exclusive to autistic people. I suppose they are a part of neurodivergence. Face blindness – officially known as prosopagnosia – is something I have lived with forever and which used to cause me no end of stress.
The other day I was at work and a colleague was wearing a bubbly jumper. It had little knitted bumps on it. All day I saw the bobbly jumper person and noticed them. I reflected that tomorrow when they wore a different jumper I would have no idea who they were! I often tell people by their hair which can change. Some people are very kind and wear distinctive clothing or jewellery and I can generally work out they are who they are but most people’s appearance is a mystery.
I have worked in my current job for almost four months and I still have no idea who half the people are who work on my floor. I mean I know who they are – I know their names, what job they do, quite a lot of detail about things they have told me about their life outside of work, but their faces are a mystery. One of the issues with prosopagnosia is that many people are unaware it is a ‘thing.’ This makes it hard to explain. I usually say that in my brain the part which processes human faces is the same as the part in others’ brains which process objects. I have come across a lot of tables in my life but I can only remember the very distinctive ones!
In the past I was ashamed of my prosopagnosia. I thought it was embarrassing and meant I was somehow deficient as a person. I would try and figure out who people were from the context of what they were saying to me. This worked about 50 per cent of the time. These days I will ask where I know someone from and explain I don’t remember faces much. I don’t really care if they think I’m odd and it is better than having them think I am being deliberately rude.
As a person who has a bit of a public profile, this stuff can be challenging! A lot of people recognise me who I have never met before. If I am at a speaking event I usually ask if I have met someone before, The same goes form the women’s and gender diverse support group I facilitate. If I don’t know who someone is from looking at them I will ask if we have met before. There is one woman in an autism group I am a member of who I have known for some years but every time I see her I forget who she is!
It is an odd feeling looking at faces. I recognise probably about 20 per cent of the people I know. If I see someone a lot they will eventually stick in my mind – well most of them time anyway! Faces are mysterious to me. I don’t see much of what is on the face. I generally see hair and then notice the person’s body size and shape and what clothes they are wearing. If you asked me to tell you what colour my mum’s eyes are I honestly wouldn’t be able to. I also don’t know much about facial expressions. I can decipher them when looking at a movie but in real time in conversation I have no idea. You would have to be crying loudly for me to know you were sad. This can make me appear uncaring which is not true at all. I am unsure if prosopagnosia and issues interpreting facial expressions are linked. I prefer to not look at someone when they are speaking but I am aware allistic people like to be looked at so usually compromise.
For some reason I am significantly better at recognising other trans and gender diverse people. Cis gender people really do all look the same to me. I have absolutely no idea why this is the case but it is a noticeable difference. I’m sure a neurologist could write a paper on this if they felt the need!
I guess my changing attitudes to my prosopagnosia – from being embarrassed by it to my current position of being happy to talk about it – demonstrate changes in attitudes around Neurodiversity. Prosopagnosia is nothing to be ashamed of. It is simply a different wiring in the brain. It is a different part of human experience. If I tell people about it then they will understand better. So no, it is unlikely I have any idea who you are but that is OK.