• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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Place Blindness in People with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome

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Does your autistic child get lost easily? A friend or loved one with Asperger’s Syndrome seem scatter-brained and forgetful? Or maybe they are late for appointments, got lost on the way, and then could not remember where they parked their car? They could be suffering from a condition known as place-blindness.

What is Place-Blindness?

Topographic Agnosia, commonly known as place-blindness, is a neurological condition that can occur separately or as part of an autism spectrum disorder. It is a form of “visual agnosia,” where the brain is not processing visual cues that can be relied upon to guide ones direction. Despite the fact that many people with place-blindness can read maps well, they often find themselves “lost” in familiar places. Their visual surroundings are not familiar to them. Place blindness is often seen along with Face blindness (facial agnosia) in individuals with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome.

What Causes Place Blindness?

Like autism, place blindness is a neurological condition, and its causes are unclear. Currently, there are no formal studies on the coincidence of place blindness and autism. Researchers, like they did when face-blindness was first being recognized, are currently studying patients with brain injuries who display this neurological condition to gain more insight.

Place Blindness Can be Frightening to a Child

A child with place blindness may appear to get lost easily either in the supermarkets, school hallways, or in the neighborhood with which they are familiar. They can be easily intimated by new places, or the perception of being in a new place. The world can be a frightening place when you constantly feel lost. This child may take a longer than expected time to adjust to changing schools, especially when changing classes are introduced in the middle years. They also may have a difficult time navigating public transportation, or driving places alone without getting lost.

Place Blindness is Frustrating for an Adult

Autistic adults have a harder time “hiding” their place blindness. They tend to look forgetful and scatter-brained, arrive at appointments late, and often, in a panic. They may obsess over or panic when they need to travel somewhere they have never been before. They rely on landmarks to get from one place to another and must always go the same way each time. A slight detour or change of landmark can leave the face-blind adult lost right in their own neighborhood.

From My Own Experience

Although there is little research about place blindness, the internet is filled with anectodal evidence, and stories from autistic people who convey their own frustrations and the embarrassment they feel. Because it is embarrassing to continue to lose your car in Wal-Mart’s parking lot, I would like to share some embarrassing but possibly humorous experiences. It’s embarrassing when you stumble to the wrong car, swing the door open, jump in, and didn’t realize you scared the driver until you fastened your seat belt. It’s embarrassing when you’re completely lost in the same small town you’ve lived in for the past five years because the road you usually take was blocked and you needed to turn down an unfamiliar street. It’s embarrassing when you walk inside a building (hospital, courthouse, grocery store) that you have been in a hundred times and can’t find your way around-or worse, can’t find your way out. But—what can you do?

Always try to give yourself extra time to get to appointments. Try to map out your route in advance, and do a practice run when possible. Keep a map and/or a GPS (Global Positioning System) in your car. In addition when learning the direction to a location, take note of landmarks, and speak them aloud allowing your other senses to help orient you to your surroundings. Autistic individuals are often known to have difficulty remember and properly executing directions using right or left spatial difficulties; having visual landmarks that you can recite as directions can help limit this confusion.

 

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.