I don’t recognize people I know, especially when they change their style. If a person who doesn’t wear glasses one day decides to wear a pair, I won’t recognize them. Same with hats and hairstyles, though I often fail to recognize people no matter what. Halloween masks terrify me, and people don’t look the same to me in person as they do in pictures; different pictures of the same person look to me like different pictures of different people.
“Prosopagnosia” is the medical term for this inability to recognize faces and is derived from the German word “prosopagnosie” (in Greek, prosopon” means “face”; “agnosia” means “ignorance”). Those of us who are ignorant about faces may seem careless, absentminded, or aloof, though many of us struggle with social anxiety, due to other people’s reactions to our disability. Writing on the Squarepeg blog about face blindness in relation to her year ten physical education experiences, Autistic advocate Amy Richards states that
School sports were hell for me. I vividly remember facing a circle of shouting girls on the netball court and having literally no idea which one to throw the ball to: their faces were just a blur and I couldn’t work out which girls were on my team. The shouting and the pressure would make me panic, and invariably throw to someone on the opposite team…or pass the ball in the wrong direction, as I could never remember which ‘end’ was ours. (1)
Social environments are challenging for those who don’t recognize the people who appear to know them, especially if you’re the type of prosopagnosic who feels as if you live amongst strangers. While I now work from home, where I rarely offend people with my ignorance of their faces, in my last in-person role, employed as a graduate student, I struggled with teaching and working with people who looked the same to me. I often confused and offended students, colleagues, and other campus staff by asking them their names or calling them by the names of other people. I’ve approached strangers thinking they were someone I knew.
When I met other neurodivergents who are also ignorant of faces, I gave myself the permission to simply say, “I don’t recognize faces” when possible, to lessen the chances of offending someone. Other ways to work around the disability include focusing on distinctive facial features and expressions, or a person’s posture or gait. Context helps, too, as does memorizing behavior patterns and voices.