There were plenty of questions on the videos about Face Blindness (Prosopagnosia) so I answered a few of them...
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.
In recent weeks I’ve talked about Autistic Face Blindness. What it is, how the autistic experience of it is shaped by our differences to the neurotypical average and some of the ways we DO recognise people when our facial recognition isn’t up to snuff.
It’s raised a lot of interest.
On top of the comments posted on YouTube & social media, my inbox has been bursting with people offering their stories and thoughts on their experience of prosopagnosia. One thing that was raised several times is scripting.
Scripting is a tool a lot of autistic people use to navigate the tangled maze of neurotypical communication. To autistic minds, many of the social fripperies that are fundamental to NT communication are unnecessary and distracting, but we know that if we don’t appear to conform we’ll pay a hefty price. One of the easiest ways to get past this is by scripting.
I’ve used it myself in the past…
What am I saying?
I still DO use it.
Even the way I introduce my videos is a scripted tool in response to comments from angry neurotypical people denying I’m autistic.
Scripting is easiest in specific situations like family celebrations or work meetings and it can be very useful in getting past small talk or to conceal alexithymia, but a lot of us use scripting tools to skate through interactions with people we don’t recognise and hopefully reveal their identity. A combination of generic sounding chat mixed with innocuous questions & prompts seems to do the trick for most of us.
Even if there’s no opening to elbow a few questions in, just getting people to talk and express themselves can be enough for us to place someone.
Another method that was raised is aggregate recognition. This is VERY common amongst us. The neurotypical model of facial recognition is based on recognising faces as whole entities.
One might notice specific features such as a high forehead, a beard or blue eyes but each face is seen as a distinct entity. Aggregate recognition is where we “map” someone’s facial features and memorise the resulting mental chart. Instead of looking at a photo and instantly seeing a familiar face, we see a series of features which, when added up match the ingredients of a face we already know.
An interesting side effect of this is that we sometimes find it easier to recognise a caricature or cartoon of someone than we do a photograph of them. Skilled cartoonists exaggerate the features of an individual that most stand out and the mental maps created by a lot of prosopagnosic people do something similar. It may be a coincidence or not, but I’ve met some extremely talented autistic artists who are prosopagnosic but have also been told they have an uncanny ability to capture the “essence” of their subject that goes beyond regular portraiture.
It wasn’t surprising to see several comments from people who identified with the videos but didn’t realise that face-blindness is so common in autistic people, but I didn’t anticipate the messages along the lines of
“I do this. Does that mean I’m autistic?”
There’s something to be said on both those points. Prosopagnosia isn’t unique to autistic people so it’s not a sure fire indication, but it’s common enough that it might be. As I said in the first video, when you look face-blindness up online, you’ll read that someone can be born with it or it can be a result of brain injury. It’s also known to be a symptom of some degenerative neural conditions but it’s sometimes confused with other issues. People with Alzheimer's often don’t recognise or misidentify people they’ve known all their lives, though whilst it might be that their facial recognition is on the fritz it could also be a memory issue.
On the other hand, NOT being prosopagnosic doesn’t mean that someone CAN’T be autistic. There aren’t any authoritative numbers we can quote on how many autistic people don’t readily recognise human faces because the research just hasn’t been done, but then we already know that the “official” figures for how many autistic people there are are woefully underestimated so it’ll likely be some time before anyone follows it up.
Most academic sources that mention face blindness and autism in the same sentence write it off as a manifestation of those mythical “social deficits” so beloved of research has-beens and lazy practitioners. There’s no doubt that not recognising people is a social barrier in and of itself, but to dismiss it as a symptom of a perceived inability to engage is the scientific equivalent of armchair punditry.
On Facebook a short discussion emerged between autistic people who found the videos interesting but don’t have difficulty recognising faces themselves, in fact quite the opposite. They fall into the category of autistic “super-recognisers”.
Now again, super-recognisers are a known phenomenon outside of autism and have even been used by law-enforcement to assist in identification of suspects, but in an autistic context it reflects another aspect of our minds that sometimes gets overlooked.
The spiky skill-set is a fundamental characteristic of autistic people that often gets buried in
time-wasting talk of deficits. In short – whilst all autistic people can point to areas of everyday life where we have a particular difficulty or weakness, we also exceed the average in other skills. The balance of skills in autistic people is asymmetrical, showing peaks and troughs on the chart when compared to the far more uniform plots of neurotypical people. We’ve all heard of common autistic strengths such as pattern recognition and pragmatic thinking but not so much of the less stereotypical ones including facial recognition.
In the second video I talked about how human sounds, including but not limited to voices, play a huge part in my personal recognition process and speculated that it may be a skill I was born with or one I subconsciously practised as a defensive measure.
For an autist facing all the same barriers in life but without prosopagnosia they may enhance their visual recognition skills in a similar manner.
Recognising people before they’ve spotted US gives us vital extra seconds to prepare or even an opportunity to avoid them if we need to.
The last question I want to talk about today concerns cars.
Someone said that they’d been told that people who have difficulty recognising faces also have trouble recognising types of car because both skills utilise the same parts of the brain. This is quite an interesting one. There’s partial truth in it but it’s not the whole story.
Some of us find that they have as much trouble recognising cars, places they’ve been or types of tree as they do with faces but not all of us.
It’s been theorised that because most people are predisposed to seeing faces in inanimate objects, items that are commonly anthropomorphised in this way might be more difficult to distinguish for people who don’t differentiate faces very well.
When we look at cars head on it’s so common for people to see the headlights as eyes and the radiator grille as a mouth.
If you don’t automatically superimpose faces onto things or you can never see the face of Jesus or Elvis in that slice of toast someone posted on instagram, it’s a possible indication of prosopagnosia. Face-blindness, as the name suggests, is specifically related to recognition of faces, but there’s another, related neural difference that covers everything else called “visual-agnosia”.
The title story in Oliver Sacks’ well known anthology “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”
is probably one of the best known examples of visual-agnosia in popular culture. The man in question, Dr P, a professor of music, initially thought he was experiencing problems with his vision due to diabetes but later discovered it was his ability to recognise everyday objects and people that was impacting on his life as a result of prior brain damage.
If someone is prosopagnosic and has difficulty recognising cars in particular, but not objects in general it’s unlikely to be a sign of visual-agnosia but it might also be unrelated to prosopagnosia.
Cars on the roads now are far less distinct in shape than the classics of old since so many have adopted more uniform, aerodynamic styling and there’s also a huge amount of copycatting. Different manufacturers consciously echo the aesthetics of successful vehicles made by their rivals in order to tempt customers.
There might also be an element of “The Great Neurotypical Swindle” at play with some of us overestimating the typical abilities of non-autistic people. I can only speak for myself, but I honestly don’t think any neurotypical people I know are any better at recognising makes & models of car than the prosopagnosic autists I’ve met, unless cars are part of their hobby or profession.
That’s all for the comments SO FAR on autistic face-blindness.
Thank you for reading.
You can watch the video by clicking on any of the images in the body of text.
(c) Autistamatic 2022