Place-Blindness in Individuals with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Some children and teens – and even adults – with High-Functioning Autism and Aspergers frequently become lost because they can't remember previously seen places. An estimated 33% of people with Aspergers suffer from “place-blindness” (also called topographic agnosia), which causes them to become lost easily. This can happen even in areas they know very well if a familiar landmark has changed.

Place-blindness is a form of “visual agnosia” in which the individual can’t rely on visual cues to guide him directionally. However, he may still have an excellent capacity to describe the visual layout of the same place or location. People with place-blindness may have the ability to read maps, but often become lost in familiar environments.

A person with place-blindness could live in a neighborhood for years and not recognize local houses if he sees them out of context (e.g., a photo featuring the house on its own). When out on a hike, the place-blind child or teen may remember certain landmarks (e.g., a bridge, waterfalls, fallen tree, etc.), but otherwise be unable to find his way around the woods even on a route he has traveled many times.

Place-blindness can be extremely maddening. Even some adults with Aspergers may frequently take wrong turns and arrive late for appointments and social engagements, which cause them to appear inconsiderate or forgetful. In addition, they don’t have the option of changing their usual routes or trying new shortcuts without the risk of getting lost. Place-blind people tend to rely on specific landmarks (e.g., a billboard, telephone booth, a tall tree, etc.), but they may become lost even on a familiar route that has been traveled many times.

Place-blindness may occur in conjunction with “face-blindness” (also called prosopagnosia), but many Aspies with place-blindness have very good face recognition skills, thus, having one condition doesn’t necessarily mean that the person will have the other. Both conditions run in families, suggesting a genetic component. While many place-blind individuals have a poor directional sense or impaired map reading ability, some are strong in these skills and have only impaired place or landmark recognition.

Coping techniques for place-blindness:

1. Alternate cues may be particularly useful to a person with place-blindness. Alternate cues may include color cues or tactile markers to symbolize a new room or to remember an area by.

2. Check out any new areas that you will be traveling to beforehand to see if there is a nearby cafe or other place you can wait if you don’t get lost and end up arriving early.

3. If you have strong map-reading skills, bring a map everywhere you go.

4. If you will need to travel a new route in the near future and it is very important to arrive on time, do a dry run beforehand and commit as many landmarks to memory as possible to lower the risk of getting lost.

5. Leave early for appointments whenever possible so that time for getting lost is factored in.

6. Make a point of actively memorizing landmarks that are unlikely to change or be removed.

7. Memorize route directions (north, south, east, and west) and numbers of blocks, and carry a compass to assist with navigation.

8. Naming landmarks out loud or thinking about their features verbally may help in committing them to memory.

9. Use a global positioning system (GPS) device to obtain directions.

10. Using verbal descriptions of routes.

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