Face Blindness

This entry exists because of three incidents.

A few weeks ago, I finally got a haircut after a bit too long without one. It was an action I’d needed to do and the results looked great. This simple action had an unexpected impact though. Sure, I expected Amanda to react. Same for my coworkers and family. What I didn’t expect was every single clerk at every single place I frequent to comment on it. People I thought didn’t recognize me turned out to very much recognize me.

Saturday Night, I was at a shop when the clerk also recognized me. He recognized me from having run in to me at all three Lord of the Rings movies. Needless to say I was thrown and couldn’t have picked him out of a lineup but he knew me. After a split second of memory jogging, I did recall the guy but keep in mind the last LOTR movie was a mere 12 years ago.

Tuesday: I was at a bookstore when I ran into someone who clearly knew me. I was able to carry on a conversation and be polite but I need to stress this: I did not for a second recognize them. I was faking it wonderfully. Or not. I can;t fathom I was too good.

All of this adds up to a truth: people recognize me but I am utterly lost recognizing people.

Face blindness is one of those ideas that sounds far more exciting than it truly is. If I say I’m face blind, the inevitable assumption is I’m totally lost on all faces. Not true. Obviously most of my friends, my family, my wife, I know them. Coworkers? I’m decent, definitely within the office where there are context clues. People who work at places I go to? Decent but maybe not picking out of a lineup. Outside that though? I’ve got no clue.

There is of course a simple reason: I don’t make eye contact. Eye contact is the great bane of the autistic as it fires our senses to the maximum. We can’t handle it at all. The human face has so many micromovements and we can perceive all of them. I hate being overwhelmed in that way so no, I do not make eye contact except with people I trust to the maximum with Amanda getting the most of it.

Without looking at faces aside from quick glances, of course my memory is awful with them. It’s not helped by my legendarily awful short term memory. I don’t store faces for long term memory because it’s data I’m not sure how much I’ll need to remember them. There’s only so much space in there and faces just aren’t a priority.

These combine to create a profoundly awkward social situation I encounter more often than I’d like. It’s fundamentally rude to ask who someone is, but I sometimes have to be honest and do so. If I can fake it, sure I will. But I know that’s at its core even ruder. All the same it’s a situation where I’m usually just plain humiliated and wish I didn’t have to figure out what to do.

So how do I break the blindness? Sheer basic repetition. I have to be around people long and often enough to get them in my head. I have to develop mnemonics. I have to constantly focus and try to be more aware of people. Only with time and effort can I get past this awkwardness. Not easy but it can be done!

So if you ever run into me and I’m fumbling to recall you, don’t take it personally. Just a quirk of my neurology.

One thought on “Face Blindness

  1. Don’t forget those of us at the other end of the spectrum who will stare at people in a way that borders on creepy. Memory is a strange and wonderful thing. Science is still just finding out how it works and why some information is retained and some isn’t.

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