‘I’m sorry, I have no idea who you are!’ -living with face blindness

We had a new Branch Manager start at my workplace yesterday. Being an outgoing Jeanette I mentioned to her executive assistant that I would like to meet her if she had a moment. I introduced myself and told her a bit about what I do in my job and outside of work as an Autism self-advocate. Even though our meeting was very positive and pleasant, I left filled with anxiety. I was not anxious about having a new manager or about how things might change or even that she might not like me. My anxiety was much more practical and conventional: I was worried that the next time I saw my new manager I would have no idea who she was.

I have a condition called prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness. It is more common among Autistic people than others and it can be very difficult. When I was a toddler my mum, my brother and I travelled overseas and my dad stayed behind. Apparently when we were greeted by my dad I had absolutely no idea who he was and was afraid of the man with the beard and didn’t want him to go near me.

Prosopagnosia  can vary in how it impacts a person. I have a relative who can recognise people in the real world but gets endlessly frustrated while watching movies as he can’t pick which character is what.

I used to be incredibly anxious about being seen to be ‘weird’ in regard to my lack of the ability to tell one human face from another. I didn’t realise that other people experienced similar difficulties and thought everyone would be rude and judgemental if I explained to them that I hadn’t known who they were. This was tied up with my lack of self respect and my having no positive Autistic identity. At that time I thought my Autism was almost something to keep as a secret and anything I viewed as being related to it – like my face blindness – probably needed to be kept to myself as well.

In 2006 I was exhibiting as part of artist collaborative group called Space Pork Adventures at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (or ACCA to its friends). Any artists among you will know that was a pretty big deal. ACCA is a public gallery which holds shows of internationally renowned artists. It was certainly a new world for me – at the time a public housing tenant, social chameleon and long-term unemployed person who felt intimidated by anyone with a job. One of the curators from ACCA was working with our artist group. She was a twenty-something woman who wore trendy clothes and rode a pushbike. At the same time I had another prestigious thing going on. My first book, an autobiography called Finding  Different Kind of Normal, had just been released. As a result of this I was also in the middle of being one of four Autistic adults filmed in an independent documentary which ended up being screened nationally  on ABC TV. [The film is called Alone in a  Crowded Room and it features Dr Wenn B Lawson, Akash Temple and James Treffry – and me – and is wonderful. It is available as a DVD on the Sensible Films website…. and I’ll stop plugging things now!] The filmmaker was a young woman who looked remarkably similar to the young curator at ACCA. I was definitely in aspirational territory and wanted to make a good impression with all these employed artist type people and was scared I might get one mixed up with he other. I attended the opening of the exhibition at ACCA and spent about twenty minutes talking to a young woman. I knew it was either the filmmaker or the curator but had no idea which one! I had this conversation with no idea of which person I was speaking to. I kept looking for cues to indicate whether it was my curator colleague or my filmmaker friend. I never worked it out but the next time I spoke with the filmmaker she said it was her that I spoke with and she had wondered if I had difficulty recognising her after we parted.

After years of trying to figure out who people were, I realised relatively recently that it is actually OK to tell people you have an issue with facial recognition. I  think it is probably better to tell people as they understand. People do seem to have a habit of making assumptions about others’ perceived ‘oddness’ and often what they fill the gaps in their knowledge wth is less pleasant than if you explain the real reason to them.

This is my usual response when I don’t know who someone is and I am aware I probably should:

“I am very sorry. I am not being deliberately rude, I have face blindness. I’m not sure who you are. It is because the part of my brain which processes inanimate objects is what I use to process faces. It is quite common, especially among Autistic people like me. If you tell me who you are and where I know you from I will remember you. Thank you.”

I would not have been able to say that to anybody when I was younger and didn’t own my Autistic identity and I wasn’t connected with the Autism community.

When I was embarrassed about my differences I was unable to explain to people something which made me look more ‘different’  – it formed a sort of a catch 22 situation  of not recognising people. I am much happier to be able to explain and usually people are fine. And for those that aren’t fine? Then I suppose it lets me know that I need to focus attention on representing for all things Autistic and educating them.

So if you see me at an event and I don’t know who you are, I do apologise. It’s just how my quirky little Jeanette brain works. And it is perfectly OK and not something to be ashamed of. And if you have face blindness too? Well I hope you found this blog post helpful. And you are most definitely not alone.

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