Young/Old Woman

What Do You Do When You Think Your Child Is Face Blind?

Young/Old Woman
Imagine your whole life is like this optical illusion.

The other day we were looking at some papers and noticed a note from my teacher on the back of my first grade report card:

“Mordechai is very personable and has many friends, but he does not seem to know their names.”

My parents never mentioned this, because there were other, more important things on that report card. Source: amboo213 on Flikr
My parents were more focused on other parts of the report card, and missed that.
Source: amboo213 on Flikr

This seems like an amusing bon mot, right? Because I’d been in the same grade with most of these children for four years by then (I wasn’t held back a lot – we all went to the same preschool); surely I knew who they were. Except I did not. I’ve currently worked at the same company for 11 years. I interact with people every day both in person and in email. I know the names, on paper, of almost everyone who works here. In person? I can apply 8 of those names to people, maybe 12. Heck, I there are nieces and nephews I cannot name from photos.

"Wait, you're my sister's kid? I thought you came with the wallet." Source: queenbeebh on Flikr
“Wait, you’re my sister’s kid? I thought you came with the wallet.”
Source: queenbeebh on Flikr

You see, I have Prosopagnosia, otherwise known as Face Blindness. A few other members of my family have it as well. In my personal case, I can render individual faces as unique, but it takes an insane amount of brainpower for me to associate said face with an actual name (I call this Contextual Face Blindness – I don’t know if this is a technical term, but it fits.) One family member is far worse, and will not recognize people if he is not expecting to see them. Like many people with prosopagnosia, we cope. In my case, I spend a lot of time on social media, where names are front and center. In one relative’s case, he has amassed a mental “file” on everyone he knows, and although he does not know the names, he will engage them (yay for circumlocution), and when he hears an identifier will jump all over it. He’s actually quite artful at it by now.

Face Blindness is not widely known about and isn’t so understood. Some people think you’re making excuses. In my case, I regularly inadvertently insulted peers by having no idea who they were. A friend of mine has a daughter still in the educational system and had this to note about her daughter’s struggles with the condition:

“She doesn’t recognize other kids so when other kids say hi she doesn’t know them. When she doesn’t remember where she sits in a class she can’t use contextual clues of oh I sit next to her to remember. Teachers she recognizes in school but not out in town. It challenges her ability to make friends but she also has Asperger’s and Anxiety so some of that is related too.”

Prosopagnosia is on my mind quite a bit right now. Why? My five-year old has begun seriously struggling in school. He’s been in a classroom environment since he was 20 months old. Yet recently, he’s been having some issues. Evaluations are undergoing, but the following observation from a teacher sent alarm bells ringing in my head.

“Ben has yet to learn any of his classmates’ names.”

Probably nothing, right? Yet further observation of my son with his peers leads to some interesting discoveries. For starters, kids keep coming up to him at various synagogues we go to.

“Hey, Ben!”
They play for a bit.
“Who was that, Ben?”
“Dat’s my frweind. Dey go to mah old school. Dey like Ninja Tutles too. He had a loose tooth!”
“Oh, what’s his name?”
“I dunno,” he almost always responds with a shrug.

Sometimes, I’ll get a bit more detail.

“I don’t know. He’s not Parkah. Parkah always wears a spidah-man hat.”

Kids with Face Blindness also relate better to cartoons. It's possible the kid's name was not Parker, but Ben called him that because Spider-Man. Source:
Kids with Face Blindness also relate better to cartoons. It’s possible the kid’s name was not Parker, but Ben called him that because Spider-Man.

I sometimes have to give him little clues.

“We’re going to [so-and-so’s] house.”
“Who’s dat?”
“Remember, he’s the boy with a big yellow dog named George?”
“Oh! Yes! An he has lots of Transfomahs and he’s a big boy.”

Recognizing people by clothing, hair, or voice are common ways Face Blind people cope. (I tend to use voice.) As one person remarked to a fellow GeekDad:

One thing that is kind of funny though that I remember, is that I had a crush on a girl, only to find out that I would keep forgetting immediately what she looked like It was really aggravating, because I would forget her hair color, or other characteristics, and had a very difficult time identifying her.

Same thing happened to me in college – heck, I knew my wife for two years before we went out, and for the first 1.5 years I could not have told you her name if you asked me. She was just “that brunette who’s out of my league.”

It’s really tough condition for kids to deal with. The thing is, my son can’t tell me outright if he can’t recognize faces. Kids with Prosopagnosia have no idea that they’re not processing the world the same as everyone else. Heck, adults often don’t. Famed Neurologist Oliver Sacks notes, in his work The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, that he himself did not realize he had a form of the condition until he began his case study of the titular subject. If a celebrated brain specialist can’t latch on to the fact that his cognition is outside the norm, then are we really expecting someone who is still mastering tying his shoes to have a clue what’s going on?

"Confound it, father, give me some velcro!" Source: Pixbay.
“Confound it, father, give me some velcro!”
Source: Pixbay.

So what’s a parent to do? The first step is to accept that I could be wrong. Projecting one’s own struggles on to one’s children can be a huge mistake. The second step is making sure to mention it to his teachers and to those evaluating him for special services. This has had the side effect of making me much more open about my own Face Blindness. My own mother was unaware that I had the diagnosis (but not surprised, considering our family). Then you want to start reading up on the condition. Sacks’ book above is a great starter book.

The last step is the easiest – just love the little booger and help him cope. That’s all he wants from you.

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8 thoughts on “What Do You Do When You Think Your Child Is Face Blind?

  1. I’m pretty sure that I have face blindness too. There are people I’ve worked with for over a decade whose names I don’t remember. If I don’t work with someone closely for awhile and if my brain doesn’t happen to latch onto some identifying feature of their face/body, then I’ll forget their name quickly. This is especially embarrassing in conferences if I introduce myself to someone I already met and had a long conversation with.

    The face blindness also extends to my cousins. I see them once a year (at most) and, while I know their names, I can never remember which name goes with which person. Back when I was dating my wife, I lived in fear that I’d go to pick her up from the airport (we had a long distance relationship) and I wouldn’t recognize her.

    I’ve gotten quite good at faking whether I know who someone is while talking to them until someone else mentions their name. I’m not sure if my oldest son has inherited this condition, but he has inherited my Asperger’s syndrome. I often wonder if there’s a link between the two conditions.

  2. I have just as bad a problem with names, but I don’t believe I’m face-blind. If anything, I go to the opposite extreme: I recognize faces everywhere I go, but I can’t remember anything about them. Did I meet them, or did I just see them around? Should I know their name? All I have is the face and nothing else. I don’t know if there’s a name for this, but it may just be part of the Asperger’s.

    Facts I can remember ridiculously well. Especially technical ones, but my head is also full of useless trivia. I suspect this is because I can weave almost any new fact into a rich network of existing ones, making it easy to recall (they say recall is usually the problem, not getting the info into long-term memory).

    But a name is just a random string of sounds, with no association to anything else, so I have no way to retrieve it by association. Similarly, a face is just a bunch of unique variations on a handful of basic templates (look up eigenfaces if you’re curious).

  3. I was talking with my son about this yesterday, and described my own difficulties remembering faces and putting names to them, and he said “oh, so it’s not just me; another thing I inherited from you. Thanks, Dad!”

  4. I have a severe case of prosopagnosia and helped write about it in am episode of TNTs Rizzoli And Isles earlier this year (episode is called ‘Face Value’ Luckily none of my four kids seem to have it. Thank you for sharing and writing about it. Wishing your 5 year old best of luck. I f oii under understanding what it is the be very helpful.

  5. My daughter just turned five and started preschool recently..I have noticed over the past couple of years that she seems to be shy around family members and friends especially if they changed their hair style, up until the time she hears them talk. She even will go up to her father and mess his hair up and call him by her uncle’s name who happens to wear that messy mop head look. She calls her oldest brother who is in the army the same name as her older cousin who’s face looks nothing alike but they both have black slick hair and both are very thin..Also her other brother who lives with us 24/7 sometimes has a friend over and if the friend has the same build/hair/clothing style she will call his friend by her brothers name. She has one Grandfather who she sees twice a year, he has gray hair. Every time she sees one of my gray-haired friends she calls him grandpa. She also has been in preschool for about 2 months now and she says she has a lot of friends but when I ask her what their names are she can’t recall one single name. Also she doesn’t recognize numbers at all but everything else seems fine. I think I will mention all this to her Dr at her physical next week but i’m afraid he will look at me like I am crazy!

    1. Melissa, your PCP may not be the best person to ask, but he or she should be able to give you a referral if your PCP is less familiar. This is typically in the area of psychology, perhaps neurology but probably less so. Your best bet is to go to a psychologist who is already familiar with prosopagnosia. If he or she isn’t when you talk to him or her over the phone, keep calling until you find one who is. Otherwise, you’ll go on a wild goose chase like so many other parents have told me about, either visiting professionals who don’t know about it, who might question YOU and your observations, or tell you it’s not a big deal. If your child has prosopagnosia, which comes in varying degrees, you’ll want to consult with somebody who, at the very least, knows what prosopagnosia is in greater detail.

      My website is essentially an FAQ about prosopagnosia, so feel free to read it to get a better sense of my experiences. Some experiences will be shared, but others may be a bit different, so don’t take my word as gospel for your child. I have learned a lot from talking to other people, adults and parents of children with prosopagnosia, but I do not admit to knowing everything there is to know. I am constantly learning.

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