By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 21 May 2011)
Although some people with Asperger’s syndrome have excellent navigation skills, it has been estimated that up to one-third suffer from topographical agnosia, or place blindness, which causes them to become lost easily. This can happen even in areas they know very well if familiar landmarks change.
The tendency to get lost can be mistaken for absent-minded professor syndrome, as those with Asperger’s are often easily distracted. It may also be mistaken for laziness – not bothering to commit routes to memory – or a lack of directional sense.
A person with topographical agnosia could live in a neighbourhood for years and not recognize local houses if he sees them out of context (i.e., a photo featuring the house on its own). When out on hikes, the place-blind individual might remember particularly special landmarks such as unique bridges or waterfalls, but otherwise be unable to find his way around the woods even on a route he has travelled many times.
Problems Caused by Topographical Agnosia
Topographical agnosia can be extremely frustrating. Sufferers may frequently take wrong turns and arrive late for appointments and social engagements, which causes them to appear inconsiderate or scatterbrained. They also don’t have the option of changing their usual routes or trying new shortcuts without the risk of getting lost.
Place-blind individuals tend to rely on very specific landmarks such as a particular billboard, telephone booth, or hedge, but if the hedge is cut down or even trimmed differently, the phone booth is removed or painted a different colour, or the billboard changed, the individual may become lost even on a familiar route that she has traversed many times.
Topographical agnosia may occur in conjunction with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, but many of those with place blindness have very good face recognition skills, so having one condition doesn’t necessarily mean that an individual will have the other. Both conditions run in families, suggesting a genetic component.
Interestingly, while many of those with topographical agnosia have a poor directional sense or impaired map reading ability, some are strong in these skills and have only impaired place or landmark recognition. Thus far, there has not been much research conducted into the condition, particularly among those with ASD.
Strategies for Coping with Topographical Agnosia
The following strategies can be helpful in preventing problems caused by topographical agnosia:
- Make a point of actively memorizing landmarks that are unlikely to change or be removed. Naming landmarks out loud or thinking about their features verbally may help in committing them to memory.
- If you have strong map-reading skills, bring a map everywhere you go.
- Memorize route directions (north, south, east, west) and numbers of blocks, and carry a compass to assist with navigation.
- Use a global positioning system (GPS) device to obtain directions.
- If you will need to travel a new route in the near future and it’s very important to arrive on time, do a trial run or several trial runs beforehand and commit as many landmarks to memory as possible to lower the risk of getting lost.
- Leave early for appointments whenever possible so that time for getting lost is factored in. Check out the area beforehand to see if there is a nearby cafe or other place you can wait if you don’t get lost and end up arriving early. Bring a good book to read just in case.
For more articles on autistic spectrum disorders, visit the Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome page.
- Farah, M.J. (2004). Visual Agnosia. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
- Lawton, S., & Reichenberg-Ullman, J. (2007). Asperger’s Syndrome: Natural Steps Toward a Better Life. Greenwood Publishing Group.