My son’s heart pounds as he takes the pile and turns towards the room full of strangers. Strangers he’s spent every day with for the past two years. He looks at the name on the top of the pile - Emma Landry. It’s a name he knows well, since he hears it every morning during roll call and they spent three months working on a Science project together last semester. But he can’t tell you if she’s sitting in the room.
He doesn’t know if she’s the girl with the blonde hair staring up at him or the brunette with glasses in the back row. If he tried hard he might be able to remember her voice, but that wouldn’t help because nobody is saying anything. They’re just sitting there, watching him. Silently making up their own reasons for why such a smart kid can’t handle something as simple as passing out report cards.
Max has face blindness, and like a lot of other autistic kids and adults he has trouble remembering or recognising faces. Even faces he sees every day, like mine. The term ‘face blindness’ isn’t exactly accurate though - he can see faces, he just can’t put all the parts together into one coherent image that he remembers and recognises when he sees it again. Which is why the proper name for face blindness is prosopagnosia, or literally “not knowing the face”.
Sometime I’ll do a post about the neurological reasons for face blindness (because it’s so interesting), but for today I want to focus on what you can do to help make it easier for kids that experience it.
Why it’s a problem
Without being able to rely on faces, those with face blindness have to use other things to recognise people:
- The way they sound (their voice or accent)
- The way they look (body size, shape or height)
- The way they use their body (mannerisms, gait)
- The way they smell
- Their clothing
- Their hair (style, colour or length)
- Obvious features on their face (beards, heavy eyebrows, glasses)
But these are much less effective ways to recognise someone because they’re not always unique to one person and they can change, and that’s where the trouble sets in.
Imagine not knowing whether someone approaching you is a friend or stranger. Do you say hello? Start a conversation? Or just keep on walking. What about the guy standing next to your car, who you only recognise as your husband when he’s close enough to smell. Picture being a kid in the playground at lunchtime, looking for someone to sit with amongst a sea of unfamiliar faces, or not being able to find the teacher when you need to use the toilet because nobody in the room is wearing glasses. Imagine the shock of running to greet your mother when she comes home from the hairdresser only to find a stranger wearing her clothes.
It's easy to see the impact this would have on your social skills, anxiety levels and confidence.
It also makes other things difficult, like following the plot of movies and TV shows. My husband, who also has face blindness, gets confused when characters look similar or if the women change their hair or clothes. We often have to pause at the start so I can explain who the people are, or remind him what other movies the (even very famous) actors have been in.
Things that make it harder
It may be tough for people with face blindness to recognise people when:
- They change their hair - even pulling it back into a bun or ponytail
- They're sitting down - because you can’t see body movement and height
- They're not talking
- They send conflicting messages - (eg) a woman with a deep voice
- They're wearing uniforms - because everyone looks the same
- They grow or shave off a beard
Ways to make it better
Here's some things you can do to help kids with face blindness:
- Figure out what features they use to recognise people - this takes some trial and error (usually you work it out after something’s gone wrong)
- Explain face blindness to them - talk about how most people recognise each other so they understand what to expect
- Teach them what to do if they find themselves in trouble (e.g. say “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are”)
- Help them to recognise people - point out features that are less likely to change
- Educate the people around them that they might have trouble recognising who they are
- Ask people to tell your kids their name (so they know who they are) and how they know them - “Hi Michael, it’s Mrs Willis your teacher”
- Don’t assume that they've recognised someone, no matter how familiar they are - say "There’s your teacher Mrs Willis, hello Mrs Willis!" when you walk into the classroom
- Point out when someone they know has changed - "look, Aunty Rose has red hair now" or "Daddy has shaved off his beard today"
- Don’t assume they can recognise you when they needs you - don’t say “come and find me when you’re ready”
- Allow time for them to recognise people (by looking them over or listening to them)
- Choose a school without uniforms
- Ask the teacher to wear a bright badge so they can pick her out easily
- Explain to their classmates that they're not being rude if they can't remember who they are
- Prepare them for fancy dress or free dress days at school (or keep them at home)
- Give them a class seating chart with photos on it
- Get the class to wear name tags
- Be careful when teaching stranger danger (as everyone may be a stranger to them)
- Don't fricken ask them to hand out report cards
On the upside
Having face blindness isn't all bad. One of the things people like best about my husband is his approachable, friendly nature - he explained to me recently that it’s a strategy he developed to cope with his inability to recognise people. Since he can’t tell whether he already knows the person he’s talking to, he errs on the side of caution and starts chatting to them as if they were an old friend. It’s fascinating to watch how quickly people warm to him because of this.
Another bonus is that every time I change my hair, he literally feels like he’s married to a new woman - until I speak that is (so the illusion doesn't last long).
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