Recently, “Melissa” wrote to ask me about her son — and it’s such an important one, I wanted to share my answer with you. I hope you’ll find it helpful and empowering, too:
Q.My son plays hockey and it seems to take him several months if not the whole season to put a name to a face and even remember who they are. We have been thinking of ways to help…but we are stumped. He’s been like that his entire life. Is this common? Any info you have would help!
I hear you, Melissa! We’ve got this covered. Now here’s the scoop:
My dad was a super-smart guy. Genius IQ. Successful international commercial litigator. And in hindsight, a TOTAL Aspie. Fine, I established his smarts with the CV up front — but what actually matters here is that “how can you be so smart but so stupid” disconnect that plagues less-typically wired folks.
It’s actually the “boy-was-he-Aspie hindsight” that matters most. It helps to fill in so many gaps….and explains away one oddity, in particular, that used to annoy the heck out of my mom. You see, even after twenty years with the same group, without fail, on the evening of their monthly poker night, my dad would have to ask her to remind him which person was which when they arrived.
To my mom — and surely to most people, this habit came off as snobby. Aloof. As if he couldn’t be bothered. But that explanation couldn’t have been less true…my dad was trying very hard to match the names and faces — he just….couldn’t. Not wouldn’t. Couldn’t. And the huge amount of effort he was putting in — unsuccessfully — only made him more socially anxious….and thus, more confused. And more uncomfortable.
As much as my dad couldn’t see past his nose without contacts, he clearly could not SEE and identify the distinctive elements of different faces. It’s called “prosopagnosia” (or for the not highfaluting among us, “face blindness”). It’s a VERY, very common “also ran” for spectrum folks that can cause loads of totally awkward moments.
Only once did it happen to me to the degree that I remember….but boy, do I still cringe.
At the 3rd birthday party of a close friend of my then-very-little-girl, I found myself next to the dad doing the “small talk” thing. Now let me clarify. I was at this house every other week for playgroup. I knew the dad well. I knew the daughter and mom super well. I had been at the hospital when the mom had delivered the now-two-year-old baby brother. In short, these people were NOT strangers. And do you know what I said to the dad, while trying to balance my Chinet plate and soda can? I smiled super-big and, of the squirmy little munchkin in his arms, asked, “So who is this little guy?”
People….the “little guy” was the little brother. Whom I saw every week. Whose diaper I had changed dozens of times. And yet when I spoke, I was being one-hundred-percent genuine and friendly — I wanted to “meet” this new kiddo. Who wasn’t new at all.
You can imagine that dad was pretty bewildered when replying, “Uh, this is Kevin, Jen.” (I wonder, through the years, how many people have thought I was either drunk or on something in these moments) I quickly babbled some ridiculous excuse about being exhausted and began blabbering about Kevin’s favorite toy (which I knew) just to prove I wasn’t a total idiot. But I’m fairly sure I only further convinced him that I was.
Oh, she sings again the power of identifying those of us who are on the spectrum. What a relief it would have been to my dad and to me to know there was as legitimate reason that those familiar faces seemed intermingle-able or strange — and that the reason had NOTHING to do with care, attention, intelligence, or effort. Zilch.
All this boils down to the answer I sent to Melissa:
A. Heavens, yes! You’re talking about “face blindness,” and it’s common for folks on the spectrum. Of course, the bummer is that, though it’s completely medically real, face blindness CAN comes across as not caring enough about the other person to “bother.” The good side, though, is that this can become a fabulous opportunity to learn to self-advocate — which is a skill he’s going to need in every aspect of life, anyway.
I’m REALLY hoping you have the Secret Book of Social Rules for him — Chapter 25 is ALL about self-advocacy….about learning how to ask for what you need in a way that is both polite AND doable. Of all six of my books, this is actually the ONLY chapter number that I know by heart — because it is probably the one I consider to be the most important, most-essential “need to know” of all.
Think about this: a hearing impaired person might start a conversation with a disclaimer like, “By the way, if I miss something you say, please know I can’t always hear as well as it may seem I can. So if I don’t respond, please repeat it and know I’m not ignoring you.”
My next-door-neighbor did that when we first moved in twelve years ago, and I was extremely grateful for it. I knew what she needed AND I wouldn’t accidentally misinterpret her behavior — ever! It made me a better neighbor and friend. And frankly, her no-big-deal candor impressed me (it must have, I suppose, if I still remember it this many years later).
Similarly, your son could say to friends (AND right off the bat to strangers) in a VERY casual way, “Oh! Just FYI: if I ever seem not to recognize you when you talk to me, could you please just say, ‘John, it’s Todd,’ and then go on? My vision can be glitchy and I want to be sure I can pay attention to WHAT you’re saying rather than waste energy trying to see who is actually talking. Thanks.”
And that’s it. Clear, no big deal, assertive not aggressive. Just fair. By being causal AND upfront, he avoids awkward moments and, instead, gains allies and respect — from them and, most importantly, from himself.
And Melissa! Don’t forget to take advantage of ALL of the resources just waiting for you (and other families, too) in our For Families center!
PS. You can learn more about “Face Blindness” — and even take an interactive quiz — via this 60 Minutes online special.