Imagine a world where you cannot recognize the faces of anyone, even your loved ones. No matter how intently you study the face, and try to understand the features it will not compute into your memory. The face is made up of strange shapes, intense eyes, and variations that are so slight everyone may as well look the same. Going out for any reason is accompanied by the anxiety you may not recognize someone. You are not a shy person by nature, yet you turn into one because you cannot locate who you are looking for when you enter a room. You arrive first so that people will hopefully recognize you instead. You come back from every social engagement exhausted from finding the people you are meeting. You refrain from using the restroom at a crowded restaurant because you know you will never find your way back to your table or be able to recognize the people at your table. Always secretly hoping no one leaves you to go get something telling you they’ll meet you outside, because you know once separated you won’t see them easily. Not knowing if someone is related to another because you don’t see the intricacies of the facial features that make people look like families.
This is my reality.
For me, not being able to recognize faces is one of the hardest parts of autism. It is something I wish I could learn. That one day it would just click. I see and experience every other sensation, color, and light around me so intensely my mind was never able to absorb the features of a face, making me blind to it. My spatial relations skills test so low that it wouldn’t surprise me if that is another reason I am unable to put the shapes of each individual feature together to see a face. No faces. No expressions. Only colors and blurs of people.
When I tell people I cannot recognize them I am met with odd responses. I will never know how essential and personal it is to other people that their face be recognized. To me, I attach no significance to if I am recognized since I am unable to do this myself. But to others, it’s a sense of connection. Every time I try to recognize a face or facial expression it is like trying to read a Chinese character. Maybe if I see Chinese enough times I will learn the language. Or maybe it will always be confusing characters I cannot attach the correct meaning to.
When I talk to someone I do see their face. I see it like I imagine you would see it. And in the moment I know it is them. But the minute they walk away, change clothes, change hair color, or I see them in an out of context situation it is as if I’ve never seen them before. It is as if my short term memory is able to see the face but unable to translate the person’s face to my long-term memory. Meaning, when I see someone at the grocery store that I normally only see in the office, it is almost certain I will not notice or recognize them. Because I am not looking for them.
To recognize someone I must be expecting to see them so that I can manually access the other information I know about them I have stored in my memory to identify them.
I put a lot of effort into making up for this. Going through life unable to see faces or see emotions and expressions is extremely draining and frustrating. So I pick up on other things instead. I memorize everything else about a person. The clothes they wear, the way they smell, the hairstyle, their voice. And then I fill in the gaps to identify them. I am always doing detective work.
For example, recently I took a standardized licensing exam for my profession. One of my old college mentors was at the exam for her students. There were 600 people walking out of the exam and she was standing at the top of the escalator giving hugs to her students as they exited. I first heard her voice and recognized it. I then looked over. Same height, same color hair and hairstyle, and similar clothes as to what I remembered. I also knew she was now working in this area. But I was not 100% sure. Because I couldn’t recognize the face. If it was her I very much wanted to approach and say hello. Imagine how hard it is looking over at someone and not knowing who they are.
You then have to make a choice: take the gamble, approach and find a way to play it off if you are wrong, or do not approach and risk appearing rude.
In this instance, I really wanted to say hello if it was in fact her. And I had enough to go on that made it high a probability it was the person I thought it was. So I decided to say her name. In this type of situation, the worst case scenario would be no one responding to the name and because it was so crowded I could easily walk away. I tried it. And it was her. I got my hello.
What amazed me most after this experience was that so much time had passed and yet I was still able to use all of the other features I memorized about her to correctly identify who she was even without the face. I truly believe one of the reasons my memory is so excellent is because of things like face-blindness. It has to be good.
Another time my memory made up for my inability to have facial recognition was in college. I was walking to my dorm room and saw a hoop earring on the ground. There was nothing special about it and looked exactly like one any girl could be wearing. I picked up the earring and brought it to the girl I thought it belonged to. I was correct. Out of over 5,000 students I knew which one the earring belonged to because I had memorized every accessory everyone wore in order to recognize them. I knew it was her earring because I had used it to identify her before.
For autistic people like me, changing your style, your hair, or even simple things about your appearance without warning is incredibly difficult. I use all of those things to identify you. It’s all I have.
How to help. This is not to say do not ever change. It is important that we adapt. But this would often be a source of anxiety for me. If someone changes without warning I now have no way of recognizing them. For family members or close friends, it is helpful if they warn me before they make a change so that I know what to expect and to document it into my memory. If meeting somewhere, let us know exactly where you are and pick a place where you are easily visible or where you can see us and approach if we fail to find you.
My coworkers and friends may change appearance often, and there is nothing I can do about that. I have learned effective ways around it. Effective, but draining. Although most of my masking has become automatic, lack of facial recognition is the one thing I am still very much aware of and struggle with daily. Pulling out all of my other memories of identifiers is not automatic at all, it is taxing. Even though I have become good at it. In many cases I prep myself beforehand. I do my research. Do I know what they are wearing? Do I have a picture I could look at and maybe hope something sticks before they walk in? Do I know where they are sitting or who they are with?
This world is made up with nonverbal communication as its main language and millions of faces. Both of which I am unable to learn. Know that I do wish I could see when you are frustrated or sad. I wish I could see the uniqueness of your face. But in a world where I am overrun by sensory and lack of spatial connection, it leaves me navigating a different path. One of swirling colors so bright they hurt, sounds so loud they pierce my ears, eyes so intense they bring uneasiness to my soul, and faces so many that I see all yet none.
I am forever navigating without a map. Navigating a faceless world.