• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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Autism and Face-Blindness: Facial Recognition Difficulties in Autism

face blindnessProsopagnosia, also known as “facial agnosia” or “face-blindness,” is a neurological disorder that makes facial recognition difficult or impossible. Two thirds of autistic children and adults have some degree of face-blindness.

Why do people with Autism have trouble recognizing faces?

We do not see with our eyes, we “see” with our brains. All of us—with or without Autism see with our brains. Our eyes take in a snapshot but it is our brains that process all the information in the photo. It makes sense of all the patterns, categorizes them, and stores them for later use (recognition). Some autistic children and adults may fail to recognize familiar faces, but would never fail to recognize a tree, or a cat, or the shapes of clouds—why?

Theories/Causes of Face Blindness

A number of theories have arisen to answer this question. One theory is that autistics tend to be social uninterested, and therefore do not care enough to remember the people around them, but this does not seem to be in line with scientific evidence. Another theory is that those who have autism tend not look people in the eye, or focus on their faces making it difficult to remember them. Those with weak central coherence, one of the [three core deficits] (http://autism.answers.com/autism-awareness/three-core-deficits-of-aspergers-syndrome-autism) of Autism, tend to focus on details but lose track of, or don’t perceive the whole. A tendency to focus on minute details, a portion of the face or specific feature, without taking in the whole picture could be partially responsible for many autistics having have difficulty with facial recognition. All of these theories seem viable; however, there may be another explanation.

A Deeper Explanation: Pattern Recognition

Facial recognition is isolated in the right temporal lobe in the “fusiform face area.” Non-facial recognition happens on the left side of the brain. In other words, all other details, pieces, and patterns are processed on the left side of the brain.Why does this matter? Autistics tend to do fairly well on pattern recognition tests—significantly better than their neuro-typical (NT), those without Autism, counterparts, but do poorly on facial recognition tests. The opposite is true for neuro-typical people who perform very well on facial recognition test, but do poorly in pattern recognition. In the autistic brain it seems that the “fusiform face area” does not function the way other people’s do.

The Upside-Down Test

Tests showed that autistics were able to recognize faces that they viewed upside down. Researchers found that the circuitry that recognizes faces only works on faces that are right side up. Upside down faces are routed to the left side of the brain to be processed like any other image. The upside down faces processed like patterns, and autistics recognized those facial patterns.

Many people have had the experience of seeing someone, and not being able to “place” their face; they the person who stands before them from somewhere, but can’t remember where. Or, they know the face and cannot recall a name. However, for those people on the Autism Spectrum that have difficult with facial recognition, or some degree of “Face Blindness”, there is usually no inkling of familiarity, no spark of recognition; it is as if they are seeing the face of a complete and total stranger for the first time.

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.