Prosopagnosia! Prosopagnosia is one manifestation of Sensory Processing Differences wherein your brain doesn’t process faces in the standard way. It’s also known as face-blindness. And both G and I have it.
I didn’t realize how severe my prosopagnosia was until I moved to Vermont. Living in this state is harder for me, recognition-wise, for two reasons. First, the population is almost entirely white. Living in New York City and other more diverse, generally urban environs most of my life enabled me to identify people partly by skin color and hair texture. Second, there was a style factor in these cities which is, shall we say, not so much in play here: flamboyance of dress is not as common in Vermont as I’d like it to be – and not just because I can’t tell anyone apart. As my dear friend Fern once said when we were in graduate school at Columbia University – an environs that felt to us downtown denizens like a bastion of preppiness in the midst of a then-freaky New York City -- “I feel like a drag queen here.” Come to think of it, we need more drag queens in Vermont, too!
ANYway, in a state where most people are white and dress casually, sportily. I find myself frequently faced with a friendly person who knows me, and expects me to know him or her. Which I probably do. But not by face.
Oh and another thing: small towns. In small towns you don’t just see someone where they work or attend a specific activity with you, where you naturally might develop contextual identification. No…in a small town, you also run into them and are expected to recognize them IN OTHER PLACES.
Figure I – Basic Distinctions – Weak to Strong Recognition
Figure II – Bonus Distinctions – Strong Recognition
None of these observations – from skin color to hair length or texture or color to age to gender identity…--- is a judgment for G or me (well, maybe style -but I celebrate style diversity!). We are generally much too engaged in attempting to navigate this neurotypical world to feel critical of others’ looks. Visual differences (there are others uncatalogued here that may be helpful: moles, glasses, braces…) are just ways to recognize people.
Once I get to know someone well, I am able to recognize them…most of the time. Certainly close-up! This is not the case for all people with prosopagnosia, some of whom are never able to recognize even their closest associates. G has thought other women were me from time to time, and continues to do so; only when he gets right in front of them is he able to see that he was mistaken. Disconcerting – but I get it. In fact, it was through watching G have some pretty notable encounters of this sort that I began to realize that I had the same tendency. Before this dawning, I’d been prone to wondering why I could not distinguish between most of the mothers at drop off (or their kids, or who went with whom…), but I’d just put it in my “quirky me” category, with a side of “pathetic.” Around the same time, there was a great article in the New Yorker by Oliver Sacks ***http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/face-blind*** on this very subject (which also goes into topographical agnosia – another form of visual agnosia [lit.: not-knowing] - that I also share, but, luckily, G does not), and I realized there was a name for what G and I were experiencing!
G realizes that he has this Sensory Processing Difference, and that it’s something I, too, deal with. He’s learned to check himself in this area, and he’ll often say, now, “…Is that? …No.” He’s become more careful over time of calling out to his peers unless he’s sure it’s the person he thinks it is, which, frequently, it is not.
As G grows, he will be able to develop tools for recognition and hone his skills in this area. As awareness grows, he’ll know his face-blindness is a sort of Sensory Processing Difference that is shared by many. He’ll figure out his own best Distinctions, recognition-wise – and never need to call himself “pathetic.”
Full Spectrum Mama