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"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.


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:


Anonymous said...

‎:( We moved last fall and a few months later, my 6 year old with ASD ran into a neighbor girl he played with 5/7 days a week for over 3 years. She bounced up to him and said HI. He looked at me and said Who is she?

Anonymous said...

Nice to learn that this is typical...

Anonymous said...

We have been in supermarkets before when a classmate will say hello to my son and he will just look at me blankly (if they are not in their uniform and out of context he has no idea) I usually have to whisper their name - its when he starts to argue that its not that person that things get embarrassing lol
about an hour ago · Like

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, I did not even know something like this existed. But it explains things. Recently my son was being bullied but thus far has been unable to identify them to the assistant principal, even though he looked at all the students' photos in the yearbook!

smartalek said...

Thank you so much for this post.
*Hugely* helpful.
A thought regarding the theory that social challenges are causal of facial-recognition deficits (as opposed to vice versa; both being results of some common cause, such as neural idiosyncrasies; something more complicated; or just a curious correlation, without a cause-effect connection -- though that last seems unlikely to me):
Such a relationship *developed in adulthood* could not explain why I have just as much, if not more, difficulty recognizing faces in the media, as I have in recognising those of people f2f, in real life.
First, I have no difficulty or discomfort in looking at the faces of people on screens, as I might have in person. (Among other things, this means I can spend much more time and look more closely and carefully at such faces.)
Second, with many well-known faces, I've seen them far more often than I do the faces or people in my own life whom I might see on rare occasions, and briefly.
Yet I frequently have difficulty identifying the faces of even some major media/political figures, and confusing one person with another that other people tell me look nothing alike.
We all know the plural of "anecdote" is not "data."
And a data set of 1 isn't terribly compelling.
And, of course, this doesn't address the possibility that facial-recognition abilities, like language-acquisition, may have to develop by a certain age in childhood, or be reduced or lost forever.
But this might suggest some possibly useful ways of testing the hypothesis, comparing the performance of subjects in facial-recognition by comparing in-person behaviors with those involving photos or videos only.
It would also be really, really cool if some therapeutic interventions could be developed.
As helpful as the suggestions above are, they are of course band-aids, not full solutions.
Constantly failing to recognise people you really should be able to identify instantly and easily really sucks.
So do thinking you recognize someone who is actually unknown to you, and confusing one person with another (especially if they know each other, and doubly so if they don't like one another!).

Macreade said...

He's now 17 years old, and told me a few weeks ago that, until recently he didn't recognize people's faces - but that he's now learning to do so and is enjoying being around groups of people more. I hadn't heard about this part of the syndrome, so looked it up and found the blog. Interestingly, our son also reports that he doesn't have many social memories and I wonder if facial recognition has something to do with that.

Susan H said...

My daughter is now 13, but was diagnosed with prosopagnosia in the first grade by an excellent and perceptive school psychologist. We had her assessed for Autism 3 times, between the ages of 4 - 11, but each time the health system said she 'had spectrum-like qualities' but it was not Autism. Just this last year she was reassessed again by someone outside of that system who had the time to work with her over several months and really get to know her. He was totally mystified how she had not been diagnosed with Autism. She has a very high IQ in verbal and taught herself to read at age 3, was at a University reading level by Grade One (even so she could understand facts, but not the nuances of fiction and motivation of people, their thoughts and actions) and has a very strong memory. In a typical assessment they don't really have time to realize how much of her social skills, her understanding of non literal thinking, and so many other things are memorized mental files that she accesses as needed. But with the diagnosis of the prosopagnosia also came a theory that she does not 'chunk' information like other people, and this also explains some of her inability to understand abstract concepts, and group similar experiences and learn from them. This was a great help at school to explain her behavior to teachers and other helpers so that they could support her appropriately.
Fortunately, as part of her sensory processing disorder she is very sensitive to sound and voices, so to help with her prosopagnosia she often could identify people by some distinctive feature and their voice. Which works pretty well, unless they turn up one day with a new haircut and a cold!

Nick Fisherman said...

I've spent my whole life thinking that I was just secretly racist. I tried to move away from those thoughts, but I kept having trouble identifying people. I'm mixed race, so it wasn't hard to justify my inability to recognize people from any and all races. I wasn't diagnosed until a few years ago when I was 27, but my psychologist didn't say one word about this aspect. It wasn't until an autistic character in the SyFy show, Hunters mentioned it as an issue for her that I realized that I shared her condition.

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

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