- Quinn Dexter
Autistic Face Blindness #1 (Prosopagnosia) [transcript]
Updated: May 16
We often talk about autistic people taking things "at face value"
but what value has a face if we can't recognise it?
This article is based on the script of the video of the same name uploaded in February 2022
You can watch the video by clicking on any of the images in the body of text.
Hi. I’m Quinn and I’m autistic.
Welcome to Autistamatic.
Becky worked in the food hall of a nearby department store and in her lunch breaks she’d browse the record shop where I worked. We started chatting and after a couple of weeks she suggested we go on a date.
It was the late 80s and I was 17.
So on a bright, summery, Saturday evening I got on the bus expecting to be at our meeting spot atabout 6.45, 15 minutes early for our 7.00 date. Then life threw me a curve ball. The bus had engine trouble and took a detour to the city depot. Us passengers waited on the bus whilst a mechanic opened panels and banged about, until eventually the driver asked us all to get off and mount a different bus to complete our journey to the city centre.
When I got to our meeting point I was already running more than ten minutes late, but whilst there were a couple of people there waiting for their own friends or dates, I didn’t see Becky. She must have been held up too, so I dashed round the corner to the ATM to take out some cash. I grabbed the money and hurried back ready to meet Becky once she turned up.
And waited some more.
Back then there weren’t any mobile phones so there was no way of contacting her to see where she was. I simply had to wait until she got there.
At around 8.00, an hour after we were due to meet, I saw a bus that could take me home waiting at the traffic lights so I decided that I’d waited long enough and ran to the bus stop to go back home. Either Becky had been too impatient to wait for me or she’d got cold feet. Or maybe there’d been some emergency in her life, or HER bus had broken down? I had no way of knowing and since I didn’t have her phone number I’d have to wait until I saw her to find out.
I didn’t work Mondays so on Tuesday I waited for Becky’s lunch break with a mix of anticipation and dread. I’d find out whether I’d been the victim of a cruel prank or just one of life’s unexpected spanners in the works. I was totally unprepared for Becky storming in with a face like thunder and immediately tearing into me for ignoring her.
What sort of monster was I?
It would have been bad enough had I just stood her up, but to turn up and walk straight past her like she wasn’t there ?! If I didn’t like her I could have just told her instead of being so cruel. She told me how she’d got her hair done, bought a new blue dress (because she knew I liked blue) and had waited patiently for me to turn up, only to see me get off the bus, look straight through her and run round the corner leaving her standing speechless in shock.
Then it dawned on me.
There HAD been a girl with big, 80s blonde hair in a blue dress waiting near the Post Office we’d agreed to meet at, but that wasn’t Becky… was it?
It WAS Becky though, and I hadn’t recognised her.
I’d only ever seen her in her work uniform, without makeup and with her hair tied back and the girl I saw outside the post office looked completely different to my eyes.
I apologised for all I was worth and begged for forgiveness. I’d honestly not recognised her and I was SO sorry for making her feel bad. I told her that I’d waited until 8pm thinking she hadn’t turned up and pleaded with her to give me another chance, but she was having none of it.
I was a nasty piece of work and she wanted nothing more to do with me.
She never came into the shop when I was working ever again.
To rub salt into the wound, her colleagues from the department store would give me the side-eye when they came in and a couple refused to be served by me. Eventually I lost that job after two of her colleagues lodged bogus complaints about being short-changed by me, presumably in revenge for my despicable treatment of their friend.
It was many years before I heard the word prosopagnosia, and still more before I discovered that it’s actually really common in autistic people like me. There’s no clear understanding of how common prosopagnosia or face-blindness is amongst autistic people, and it seems that the general understanding of it is very sparse too. Estimates of how many autistic people have trouble with faces vary wildly, but outside of academic study I can say without doubt that it’s very commonplace amongst us.
Whenever I’ve told that story in autistic company it’s amazing how many eyes light up as memories of similar incidents in other autistic lives come to the fore and their stories emerge too.
If you look up prosopagnosia online you’ll see it described as an inability to recognise faces and that it can be either an inherent difference we’re born with or acquired through brain injury.
Autistic prosopagnosia isn’t always as clear cut as those definitions suggest though. When I first read about it I thought it didn’t quite relate to my circumstances, because whilst I’m terrible at distinguishing faces I do recognise them sometimes. Most of the time I have no trouble with people I know well and my difficulty seems to be mainly with people I’ve only met a few times.
I HAVE failed to recognise people I’ve known for years though. With Becky I put it down to her appearance. I had never seen her with makeup or out of uniform and when the big hairdo was factored in it made even more sense, but there’s another factor in play too.
At the time of writing this piece I’ve worked for the same company for well over a decade, and about 5 years ago I had another “Becky incident” with a colleague. In the last ½ hour of the working day I’d been in a meeting which included one of our engineers, Bruno. A short while after work Bruno saw me in a nearby supermarket picking up some groceries and waved at me from the other end of the store. I didn’t recognise him and presumed it was somebody I didn’t know, waving at someone behind me.
Again I was wrong and Bruno took me to task for it the next day.
I explained that I’m prosopagnosic which he wasn’t sympathetic to.
I’d worked with him on & off for years and had no trouble recognising him at work so why had I ignored him in public?
When I saw Bruno after work he was wearing a beanie hat and a winter jacket that covered his company polo shirt,
but more than that – he was in the wrong place.
I’d only EVER seen him at work so seeing him in the supermarket was out of context. If I’d been able to see his shirt with the company logo embroidered on the breast I might have made the connection but as it was, all I saw was a random person in a puffer jacket & a woolly hat waving across a supermarket at someone behind me.
Face blindness is not an absolute, much as the usual use of the word blind doesn’t have to mean that a person is completely without sight. Some blind people have no vision at all, but many can see to varying degrees with the right spectacles or can see patches of colour, light and dark and so on. They’re still functionally blind, but they have some visual faculty even if it’s far from 100%
I CAN recognise faces if I know the person really well, but if I don’t then I’m heavily reliant on context to know who they are. Change their clothes or their hair and put them in an unfamiliar place and I can’t tell if they’re someone I should know or a random passer by.
I now know that the situation I see people in plays a huge part in how I recognise them visually. As long as I see someone in the same place or circumstance as before I’m likely to recognise them or at least suspect that I SHOULD know who they are, but take them OUT of that context and I’m immediately at a massive disadvantage.
As I’ve got older and met more and more autistic people, especially since starting this channel, it’s become increasingly clear that difficulty in recognising faces is far from unusual for us and it’s rarely an absolute, black & white situation. Context appears to play a defining role in visual recognition of other people for a large proportion of autistic people.
In recent years I’ve taken to explaining that I’m
“terrible with faces”
with people I know I’m going to have regular contact, in case I should fail to recognise them at a later date. I ask them not to be embarrassed to remind me who they are if they should see me somewhere unexpected nor to be offended if I walk past them. I don’t always get an understanding response, in fact some have laughed as if I was trying to wind them up and more than one has been openly hostile, but most people have taken it on board and it’s saved me from I don’t know how many embarrassing incidents since.
Now, after all I’VE JUST SAID, I’m going to confuse the issue a little bit.
Whilst I’m hopeless with faces I seem to have a skill for recognising people when they’re hoping NOT to be seen, or before they’re even in a room. It took me some time to realise why that is but you’ll have to wait till next week to find out more.
If you’re autistic and you’ve walked past people you know or not been able to recognise someone from a photograph, you’re far from alone.
There’s a lot of us.
You can watch the video by clicking on any of the images in the body of text.
(c) Autistamatic 2022