Hey, want to read about another thing about me? Well… I certainly hope you do, because I’m about to write about it.
I have this thing where I am not so great at recognizing faces. One example – remember the Lord of the Ring movies? Remember two of the characters – Boromir and Aragorn? Well, I couldn’t tell them apart. I had to watch the ENTIRE trilogy more than once (and that is many hours of movie watching right there) before I could even begin to tell them apart. Let me tell you, that made for some confusing movie watching. Ok, rugged guy with a goatee is talking to someone, which one is he? I was actually pretty ok on recognizing the other characters. I could even (mostly) tell the hobbits apart. It was really only those two who looked indistinguishable to me. And with even that, the movies could be remarkably confusing at times because I didn’t know who was doing what.
Another story. This time from middle school. A whole lot of the boys were long and lanky, with short brown hair and a goatee. I couldn’t tell ANY of them apart. School felt like being surrounded by faceless clones – a handful of people were sufficiently visually distinctive that I could recognize them, but they were by far the minority. Anyway, that’s not actually the story, that’s just the background. In gym class we had a bit where we had to run a mile, which had been judged as 8 laps around the parking lot. Either in an effort to keep us honest or just to give the runners one less thing to think about, we were paired off – one person runs, the other person watches and counts their laps. Sounds great, right? Well, I was paired with one of the dozen or so Long, Lanky, Short Hair and a Goatee boys.
I tried going to the teacher to let him know that I could not distinguish my partner from the other boys, but he was not interested in listening to me. So… I did my best. Which wasn’t that good. I desperately tried to find SOME distinguishing feature so I could recognize him but did not succeed. I stared intently at the faces of the boys running past while the run was happening, trying to see if one of them would click as the one I’m supposed to be watching. Sometimes I would see one of them and think “ok, I think that’s him” but other times I was sure he must have run another lap by then and I missed him.
This story has no solid wrap-up. I did my best. I called 8 laps when I figured it was probably right, and no one questioned it. I never was able to tell my teacher about my inability to recognize my partner.
One more story. This one from just a few days ago. I like to explore music that is new to me, and since I live under a metaphorical rock there is a LOT of music out there that I’ve never heard or even heard of. I recently found a song that’s by two singers – Jessia and Bebe Rexha. Having no idea who those two ladies are, I went ahead and googled them and took a look at the image results. They… kinda look identical to me. I spent some time looking at the images REALLY HARD and making a point to check for typical distinguishing features (lip shape, cheekbones, eyebrows, chin shape, things like that) and eventually was able to tell them apart, but it was a very deliberate exercise I had to do. It does not come naturally to me at all.
Well, as I’m sure you have already pieced together since I titled my post after it – this is a condition called prosopagnosia. It is not at all uncommon in people on the autism spectrum.
I’ve never really gotten better at recognizing faces. I’m honestly not sure that it’s something people can learn. I HAVE gotten better at recognizing people via other means – things like their clothing style, the way they move or stand, maybe something particular about how they do their hair. I am also generally able to recognize people if I’m around them enough. At some point enough about them becomes familiar to me that I can recognize them when I see them. Though maybe I’ll just leave out how long that has taken me at times, or for just how long two of my friends (who were girlfriends of each other, and so together a lot) were completely indistinguishable to me. I just spent that time trying to avoid assuming who was who and waiting until they said something that made my brain go “oh! It’s THAT one!” I can tell them apart now, but damn did it take a while.
It’s not so bad to live with now, but wow was it frustrating and painful while I was growing up. I’m pretty sure it would still be frustrating and painful if I had to exist in an office environment or something like that. Luckily, my life is constructed in such a way that this particular difficulty isn’t too disabling for me, but not everyone is so lucky.
So consider this your reminder for the day that not all disabilities are visible. They aren’t even necessarily physical. And if you’re one of the allistic people reading this and you have a co-worker who never seems to recognize you? Well, maybe it isn’t their fault, and maybe it’s just as frustrating for them as it is for you, if not more so. I have many, many more stories of not recognizing people – I simply picked a few to share. I also have stories of recognizing people when others couldn’t – by silhouette. No features visible, but I could tell who it was by the way they walked. I process information differently than other people do. This means a lot of things, and one of them is that faces just don’t give me information all that well.
But it’s part of who I am, and I’m ok.