The trouble with faces – communication and recognition 

I am autistic. ‘Really??’ I hear you cry (well, probably not. I am very out loud and proud autistic and my expression and interactions with the world are pretty typically autistic.) One of those things is issues with faces. This takes the form of prosopagnosia (‘face blindness’) and issues with deciphering what people are thinking and feeling based on their facial expressions.

Facial expressions are pretty much meaningless to me. I can only really tell what someone is thinking or feeling if they are laughing or crying and even then it is a bit patchy. If you asked me to tell how someone was feeling just by looking at their face I would almost certainly get it wrong.

When I was assessed for autism way back in 1994 I remember the clinician showing me cartoons of people doing things. These were apparently out of order and my job was to put them in the correct order. I was completely baffled by this. There were no words or text, only facial expressions and other non-verbal communication (body language). I remember wondering how anyone could put these cartoons in the correct order. For me it was an impossible task. I also remember as a child being asked to smile for the camera. I actually did not know how to intentionally mould my facial features into a smile. I could only smile when I was genuinely happy. I couldn’t fake it. This resulted in a lot of unhappy-looking Yennski pictures! While I can now make myself smile on cue I can’t do any other emotions on cue! If you asked me to look sad I wouldn’t not know how to do it, even now.

I am actually a very good actor. I have been part of theatre companies and have done stand up comedy as well. How can a person be an actor if they can’t intentionally arrange their facial features into the required expression? Well have you heard of method acting? That is the only why I can do drama and theatre – to make myself actually feel the emotions the character is supposed to be feeling. It works very well and I am an excellent actor because I am actually feeling the things I am supposed to be feeling making my performances very genuine!

In terms of the facial expressions of other people it is a bit more tricky. One of the problems is that people’s expressions change a lot. So one thing I have done to learn facial expressions is watch the same movie many times over. This means I know what the characters are supposed to be feeling from the context of the story. This works quite well. After watching Lord of the Rings: Return of the King about 100 times I could decipher what the actors’ expressions are supposed to mean. The trouble with this is that people do not behave like actors in an epic movie., Actors in movies exaggerate their expressions whereas actual people tend not to do this. And it is generally frowned upon to stare at people’s faces to work out their emotions! Elijah Wood (Frodo) doesn’t mind me staring at him because he can’t see me. Perfectly OK to stare at a movie to decipher the expressions but less acceptable to stare at a friend or work colleague to see an expression which is probably a lot more subtle than a movie actor’s and which I probably won’t be able to understand anyway. Eye contact is another thing I don’t ‘get’. In fact I couldn’t; tell you what colour eyes m mum has having never looked at them! I understanding -mostly from reading novels – that people communicate with their eyes as well as with their faces and bodies. This is completely beyond my capabilities as I find eye contact very invasive and un pleasant.

So how do I know what people are feeling? I have a few strategies for this. I get almost all the meaning of communication with other humans from the words they say and the tone they use. While body language and facial expressions are largely a mystery for me, tone of voice is something I have a prodigious talent for understanding. So all I have to decipher people’s communication is the words they say and the tone with which they say it.

I don’t think I am somehow missing out but I do know I probably miss a lot of communication that neurotypical people would be able to pick up. And when I communicate with fellow Autists there is not this issue. 

The other thing with faces which I will briefly mention is prosopagnosia or face blindness. I can probably recognise 10 her cent of the people I meet. I work in an office with lots of colleagues. Most of them know me and I have no idea who most of them are! My prosopagnosia is on the severe end of the scale. I used to be ashamed to not recognise people but I since learned that lots of people have this issue – including a lot of autistic people. It is not something to be ashamed of. I often simply ask ‘where do I know you from? I’m sorry – I don’t recognise faces very well.’ I used to try and hide it which never worked and it his not a shameful thing at all. 

So faces are not my ‘thing’. I probably don’t know how you feel or who you are from looking at your face but that is OK. I think neurotypical folks benefit from understanding that not everyone experiences the world the way they do and that this is actually OK. 

One thought on “The trouble with faces – communication and recognition 

  1. So many people refuse to accept that prosopagnosia is a real thing and insist that I am deliberately shunning them when it’s simply that I don’t recognise them. I recognise people by context. This even applies to my siblings, spouse, children and grandchildren. Put me in a situation where I would not normally expect to see them, I will not recognise them at all. Until they speak. I can instantly recognise anyone I know reasonably well by their voice alone, and even though my hearing is not the best (I was diagnosed with 70% hearing loss at the age of 7 and worse now), It is still the principle method I use to identify people.

    As for facial expressions and other forms of body language, I really haven’t got a clue. I didn’t know I was autistic until I was 60 (I’m 73 now), and I had previously come to the conclusion that my inability to recognise faces and facial expressions was due to to having undiagnosed severe shortsightedness and astigmatism until the age of 12. However, as my ability to recognise faces and facial expressions hasn’t improved in the intervening 60 years, I suspect now that it’s largely an autistic trait. rather than a visual impairment as a child.


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