By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 21 May 2011)
Prosopagnosia, also known as facial agnosia or “face blindness,” is a neurological disorder that makes facial recognition difficult or impossible. According to Lawton and Reichenberg-Ullman (2007), 66% of those with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) and other social developmental disorders also have some difficulty recognizing faces (Wendt et al., 2005, found a lower prevalence of 46.6%).
Research into Autistic Spectrum Disorders and Facial Recognition
Most research into the facial processing abilities of those with ASDs has focused on the ability to read and accurately interpret facial expressions. Research on facial recognition difficulties among those with ASDs has been sparse, but there have been a few studies conducted. Findings indicate that many of those with ASDs have difficulty recognizing the faces of people they have only met once or interacted with a few times but have no trouble recognizing those they know well.
Barton et al. (2005) found that some subjects with ASDs performed well on tests of facial recognition, whereas others showed significant deficits in this area. However, all ASD subjects performed better on facial recognition tests than those whose prosopagnosia resulted from other causes such as genetic predisposition, illness, or stroke. Overall, the performance of those with ASDs who experienced difficulties with facial recognition fell somewhere in between neurotypical control subjects and typical prosopagnosiacs.
Face Blindness as a Social Impediment
Failure to recognize people one has met before can act as a serious social impediment. A prosopagnosiac may meet someone, have an interesting conversation, and then not recognize that person when she encounters him again, which can lead to social embarrassment and anxiety, and make it more difficult to establish friendships. Prosopagnosia is especially problematic in the workplace when the individual is unable to recognize coworkers and bosses.
In addition to failing to recognize acquaintances, the face-blind person may also experience false positives, believing that a stranger is a known person because certain memorized features such as hairstyle or glasses are the same. This can lead to embarrassing situations whereby the prosopagnosiac greets a stranger as though she were an acquaintance.
Theories Regarding Prosopagnosia in Those with Autistic Spectrum Disorders
It has been speculated that the lack of typical social skills associated with ASDs may result from face blindness. However, because some of those with ASDs have normal facial recognition abilities, it’s unlikely that social dysfunction prevents the development of such abilities. No significant differences in social skills have been found between face-blind ASD individuals and those with good facial recognition, which indicates that there is no correlation between social competency and the ability to recognize faces.
Another theory holds that the inability to recognize faces may stem from a relatively low social interest in others and the avoidance of eye contact, which may necessitate looking away from faces and thus not developing a clear memory of their characteristics. If such behaviours begin in childhood, perceptual expertise for remembering facial elements may not evolve. This theory suggests that social skills deficits cause face blindness rather than the other way around.
Yet another hypothesis regarding face blindness in those with ASDs has to do with detail orientation. ASDs create a tendency to fixate on certain elements of the face and so the individual may fail to see the face as a whole. Oddly, some studies have found that those with ASDs may be better able to recognize faces when they are upside down.
Research suggests that up to two-thirds of those with autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) have difficulty recognizing faces until they have interacted with individuals on a number of occasions.
Difficulty Recognizing Acquaintances
Prosopagnosiacs do not easily commit whole faces to memory in the way that most people do. Rather, they must rely on unusual features and other aspects of a person to make an identification until they know the individual very well. In extreme cases, facial recognition can never be achieved, even for family members and close friends, but this is quite rare. Most people with ASDs can recognize the faces of those they know well and are capable of developing strategies for improving recognition of acquaintances.
Strategies for Coping with Face Blindness
Those with prosopagnosia often rely on hairstyles, clothing, context (i.e., an area of the workplace where the person is most commonly seen), and objects (such as an individual’s car or the glasses he wears) to identify acquaintances. This is a good start, but it creates difficulties when people change hairstyles and colours, adopt different styles of dress, get contact lenses, or appear in a different context. Someone who can be recognized in one place, for example, at work, may be difficult to identify during a chance encounter at the beach. More effective strategies for improving identification and reducing social anxiety include the following:
- Use a Linguistic Approach – When first meeting someone, verbally describe the face in your mind to commit features such as a full lower lip, a short nose, or arched eyebrows to memory. Note particularly any unusual or interesting features that will facilitate quicker identification in the future.
- Commit Body Language to Memory – Pay close attention to hand gestures and facial expressions the person makes frequently, how loudly she speaks, her body postures, and other expressive features that could be used to identify her in the future. Focus on features that are unlikely to change.
- Inform Others in Advance – Tell coworkers and others you are likely to meet again about the problem on first contact so that they won’t suffer hurt feelings if you don’t recognize them at a future meeting. In some situations it can be helpful to tell a funny story about a time when you didn’t recognize someone – having a laugh together can ease the tension of talking about the problem.
- Develop a Buddy System – Spend time with an extroverted friend or family member and arrange to have him greet others by name until you know them well enough to recognize them on your own.
- Enhance Your Recognition Skills – Choose a pleasant spot to sit and people watch, identifying characteristics of movement, facial expression, and other aspects that could be useful for identification purposes.
In the case of a child with prosopagnosia, teach these recognition skills and strategies and practice them together. It can also be helpful to tell the child’s teachers about the problem and ask them to identify other students by name whenever possible, particularly early on in the school year.
For more articles on autistic spectrum disorders, visit the Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome page.
- Barton, J.J.S.; Cherkasova, M.V.; Hefter, R.; Cox, T.A.; O’Connor, M.; & Manoach, D.S. (2004). “Are Patients with Social Developmental Disorders Prosopagnosic? Perceptual Heterogeneity in the Asperger and Socio-Emotional Processing Disorders.” Brain, 127(8). Brain.OxfordJournals.org.
- Bogdashina, O. (2003). Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Different Sensory Experiences – Different Perceptual Worlds. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Gillig, C. (2002). A Guide to Asperger Syndrome. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Lawton, S., & Reichenberg-Ullman, J. (2007). Asperger’s Syndrome: Natural Steps Toward a Better Life. Greenwood Publishing Group.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). (14 February 2007). “What is prosopagnosia?” NINDS.NIH.gov.
- Wendt, T.; Paavonen, J.E.; Ylisaukko-Oja, T.; Sarenius, S.; Källman, T.; Järvelä, I.; & von Wendt, L. (2005). “Subjective Face Recognition Difficulties, Aberrant Sensibility, Sleeping Disturbances and Aberrant Eating Habits In Families With Asperger Syndrome.” BMC Psychiatry, 5:20.