Prosopagnosia is a condition where people have difficulty recognising faces. According to Wikipedia, it affects 2.5% of the population. It is also fairly common among autistic people.
I have always had difficulty recognising people’s faces. I can’t even recognise my own parents, so I know it’s not just a matter of familiarity. It’s something that has always been there, so I don’t really think about it much, but there are certainly times when it is very stressful.
For example, I was shopping with my parents in Kmart one day. Dad had gone off to look at something, and I needed to find him (this is in the days before mobile phones, incidentally). I walked right past him without recognising him. Fortunately he saw me, and called out to me. I have no trouble recognising voices, so I was able to figure out who he was.
A more recent example happened the other day. My friends were having lunch at a food court, and I went to join them later. They had told me where they were, but confronted with a food court of people, all I could see was a mass of faces that I had no hope of recognising. I ended up wandering around with my ears peeled, hoping to hear one of their voices. Not as easy as it seems, as I also tend to go into sensory overload in places like that (a topic for another post). I found them eventually and life goes on.
These examples may not seem that serious, but can you imagine what it would be like to not be able to recognise your own children? I don’t have any children yet, but the thought of that is very distressing. Will I ever be able to see my child in a school concert or sport’s event and recognise them? Or what if I am attacked one day? I will be completely unable to identify my assailant with any sort of confidence.
And let’s not forget about problems this causes with social interactions. Aspies are already disadvantaged when it comes to social interactions. Relationships of any sort are extremely difficult. I have often been accused of lacking empathy, being cold towards people, and of being rude to them and ignoring them. Well, many times it’s the simple fact that I don’t recognise people. I don’t greet people when I see them, because as far as I can tell, they are total strangers to me. If someone speaks to me, after a while I’ll generally be able to figure out who they are, but it takes some time. The better I know someone, the faster I’ll recognise them, but it still takes some effort.
The most annoying aspect of this condition though, is dealing with people’s ignorance. I can accept the fact that other people don’t have this problem and don’t realise that I do. However, my close friends and family are aware of it (though they don’t realise I have Asperger’s Syndrome) but they still don’t really accept it. I have been told that I just need to “make more effort”, to “care more about people” in order to recognise them. It’s so frustrating hearing hurtful things like this. If I can’t even recognise my own family members, it’s surely not just a matter of “caring”. As for “trying harder”, what does that even mean? How am I supposed to “try harder” at recognising people? Actually, I think I probably end up making more effort than others; since I can’t recognise people’s faces, I have to memorise as much other information about people as possible to help me to recognise them.
What is it about people’s faces that makes them so difficult to recognise? I think it’s a combination of things. First of all, nothing seems to stand out to me. When I look at people there is very little that my mind can “cling” to. If someone has as a distinctive hairstyle or smile or something, it’s a lot easier for me to recognise them. The other problem though, is that people look different every time I see them. They change their hair, their expression, their clothes… If nothing changes, I can generally recognise them. Change anything, and they look like a completely different person to me. The plus side to this, is that I have no trouble at all telling the difference between identical twins. I know one pair of sisters whom I didn’t even realise were related to each other, until I was informed they are actually identical twins.