Prosopagnosia and Social Development

I have recently started speaking openly about my prosopagnosia, or face blindness.  I am doing so at a point in my life where it is not a crippling or disabling difference — so I speak not from a standpoint of wanting accommodations or sympathy, but rather I want to be honest, transparent, and spread awareness.

That said, I’ve been reflecting on how this condition has affected my life, and I think it interfered with my development of friendships.  I can remember social situations where I didn’t develop friendships because I didn’t recognize people.  Often, I would talk to someone and the next time I saw them, I didn’t know with certainly that it was the same person I had talked to before.  As I’m sure you can imagine, it’s hard to build a relationship in such uncertainty.

I am employed at Alley, a distributed company.  We all work remotely, so we communicate through the written word on Slack most often, as well as in video conferencing.  In both cases, the person’s name is always displayed on the screen, so there is never any need to rely on face recognition.

We have annual retreats, and on the first retreat I definitely had trouble recognizing people, but I am super proud to say that I can recognize everyone now (3rd retreat, with mostly the same people), at least in the context of the business event.  It took practice, time, and effort — it is a result of me watching the faces on video calls (with the person’s name right next to the face) AND listening to how people talk and what they say, as non-visual clues are super helpful.  I have also spent some time looking at posted photos — really studying them, trying to spot identifying characteristics, and also getting to know people.  The people I work with all are very unique — various ages, heights, mannerisms, clothing styles, hair styles.  So I can rely on face + other clues to “get it right.”

I still had one instance of hesitation — where someone said “he’s over there” and I had to really take a close look to find that person.  Self doubt it also an issue, as I am afraid of getting it wrong, but I realize that I have to take the chance that I will make a mistake.  Making a mistake and mis-identifying a person is embarrassing, but it is far more limiting to not interact socially because of my fear.

Humans make mistakes. So be it.  I’m just going to accept that I might make a mistake but more often I’ll be correct and that will help with building relationships.

Also, let me clarify:  I have not overcome prosopagnosia.  If I saw a co-worker in an unexpected place, there’s a very good chance I would not recognize them, especially if they changed their hair style, grew a beard, or changed in some other visual way.  If they came over to me and started talking to me, then more than likely I would know who they were because of the way they talk and act, but I’m rarely certain of someone’s identity by their face alone.  At a business event, I know exactly who should be there, and so it is a matter of identifying the people from a set list.  It is not about picking the people out from a random crowd.

Human relationships are so damn important, because we can all do more together than we can alone.  Not to mention the shared commonality of human experience.

It is special to me that the people I work with know who I am and that I know who they are.  A victory, of sorts.  Identification is important.  I have no idea where this is post is going, so I’ll wrap this up now.  I think like any other developmental disorders, early intervention can be helpful.  Just understanding my condition and the potential impact could have helped me.  (I didn’t figure out I had prosopagnosia until I was in college — I had never heard of the condition before that, and didn’t realize that my internal world was so different — “you mean everyone doesn’t have this uncertainty!?!”)

I haven’t read this book yet, but it looks like it might be helpful.

Understanding Facial Recognition Difficulties in Children: Prosopagnosia Management Strategies for Parents and Professionals

Obviously, social development during childhood is important.  Maybe address the prosopagnosia and you’ll be able to help with that too.

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