"Face-Blindness" in Children and Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Many children and teens with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Aspergers have difficulty recognizing the faces of those they don’t know well. Prosopagnosia, also known as “facial agnosia” and “face-blindness,” is a neurological disorder that makes facial recognition difficult or impossible. Research suggests that up to two-thirds of children and teens with HFA and Aspergers have difficulty recognizing faces until they have interacted with a particular person on a number of occasions.

Research into Facial Recognition—

Most research into the facial processing abilities of kids and teens with HFA and Aspergers has focused on the ability to read and accurately interpret facial expressions. Research on facial recognition difficulties among children with Aspergers has been sparse, but there have been a few studies conducted. Findings indicate that many of children with Aspergers have difficulty recognizing the faces of people they have only met once or interacted with a few times, but have no trouble recognizing those they know well.



One research study found that some individuals with Aspergers performed well on tests of facial recognition, whereas others showed significant deficits in this area. However, all Aspergers individuals performed better on facial recognition tests than those whose “face-blindness” resulted from other causes (e.g., genetic predisposition, illness, stroke, etc.). The performance of children with Aspergers (who experienced difficulties with facial recognition) fell somewhere in between neurotypical control subjects and typical “face-blind” subjects.

Resultant Social Problems—

Failure to recognize people one has met before can act as a serious social problem. A “face-blind” youngster may meet someone, have an interesting conversation, and then not recognize that individual when he encounters her again, which can lead to social embarrassment and anxiety, and make it more difficult to establish friendships. “Face-blindness” is especially problematic in the workplace when the employee is unable to recognize coworkers and supervisors.

In addition to failing to recognize peers, the "face-blind" individual may also experience false positives, believing that a stranger is a known person because certain memorized features (e.g., hairstyle, glasses, hat, etc.) are the same. This can lead to embarrassing situations whereby the “face-blind” youngster or teenager greets a stranger as though he were an acquaintance.

Theories—

It’s hypothesized that the lack of typical social skills associated with HFA and Aspergers may result from “face-blindness.” However, because some of those with Aspergers have normal facial recognition abilities, it is unlikely that social dysfunction prevents the development of such abilities. No significant differences in social skills have been found between “face-blind” Aspies and those with good facial recognition, which indicates that there is no correlation between social abilities and the ability to recognize faces.

Another hypothesis asserts that the inability to recognize faces may stem from a relatively low social interest in others and the avoidance of eye contact, which may necessitate looking away from faces and thus not developing a clear memory of their characteristics. If such behaviors begin in childhood, perceptual skills for remembering faces and their unique elements may not develop. This hypothesis claims that social skills deficits cause “face-blindness” rather than the other way around.

Yet another hypothesis regarding “face-blindness” in children and teens with HFA and Aspergers has to do with detail orientation. Aspergers create a tendency to fixate on certain characteristics of the face, and so the child may fail to see the face as a whole. Strangely enough, some research studies have found that those with HFA and Aspergers may be better able to recognize faces when they are upside down.

Difficulty Recognizing Peers—

“Face-blind” kids and teens don’t easily commit whole faces to memory in the way that most people do. Rather, they must rely on unusual features and other aspects of the individual to make an identification until they know that person very well. In extreme cases, facial recognition is never achieved, even for family members and close friends, but this is quite rare. Most children with Aspergers can recognize the faces of those they know well and are capable of developing strategies for improving recognition of peers.

Strategies for Coping with Face-Blindness—

Aspergers children and teens with “face-blindness” often rely on hairstyles, clothing, context (e.g., an area of the school where the peer is most commonly seen), and objects (e.g., an person’s car, glasses, cologne, etc.) to identify acquaintances. This is a good initial strategy, but it creates problems when the particular individual gets a haircut, adopts different styles of dress, gets contact lenses, or appears in a different context. Someone who can be recognized in one place (e.g., school) may be difficult to identify during a chance encounter at the Mall.

Tips for Children and Teens with Face-Blindness:

Here are some effective strategies for improving identification and reducing social anxiety...

• Pay close attention to hand gestures and facial expressions the individual makes frequently (e.g., how loudly he speaks, his body postures, other expressive features that could be used to identify him in the future). Focus on features that are u NOT likely to change.

• Spend time with an outgoing buddy or family member and arrange to have him greet others by name until you know them well enough to recognize them on your own.

• Choose a pleasant spot to sit and watch people, identifying characteristics of movement, facial expression, and other aspects that could be useful for identification purposes.

• Tell teachers and peers about the problem on first contact so that they will not feel insulted if you don’t recognize them at a future time. In some situations it can be helpful to tell a funny story about a time when you didn’t recognize someone. Having a laugh together can ease the tension of talking about the problem.

• When meeting someone for the first time, silently describe the face in your mind to commit features to memory (e.g., a full lower lip, a short nose, arched eyebrows, etc.). Note particularly any unusual or interesting features that will help make quicker identification in the future.

Parents can teach these recognition skills and strategies to their child and practice them together. It can also be helpful to tell the youngster's teachers about the problem and ask them to identify other students by name whenever possible, particularly early on in the school year.
 
Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:
 

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