Monday, April 16, 2007


It's what distinguishes between someone familar and a potential threat. I don't know about neurotypicals, but I'm guessing that they're similar in this regard. People are generally treated with coolness and mistrust unless I know them already or some kind of a bond is forged, usually based on some commonality. Our kids play together, or we share similar interests or ideals, or we have a dear friend in common, etc. If we don't know a person and there are no obvious signs or reasons why we might want to know them, we tend to be curt and briefly polite, the bare minimum necessary before moving on to our tasks of the day.

We establish and reinforce recognition of familiar people by social cues such as eye contact, small cues such as a nod of the head or a wink, a wave, or a verbal greeting. Then the recognition might be further reinforced (and usually is) by social niceties and ritual, such as "Hello, how are you doing?" and small talk. A social bond is reaffirmed and strengthened with each such interaction, provided of course that it is a positive experience for both parties.

-----OK, here is the problem-----

Some of us, specifically people on the autism spectrum, often don't recognize people by sight part or most of the time. It's called prosopagnosia. Recognition of people is based on other cues such as the surrounding environment (you know that it is the same girl who always makes your espressos, because you and she are in the same setting every morning), clothing (especially uniforms), voice, scent, hair color and style, body size and shape, or a combination of such factors. The face may be recognized in a secondary way, as an assist, but not the primary means of identification. What this means is that if I see a co-worker in an unfamiliar setting, say, a large store 50 miles away from here, I probably will not realize it is them. Most people treat those whom they do not recognize as potential enemies/threats, or as non-interesting. If a person I know goes on a major diet or changes their hair style or color drastically, the same thing can happen, even in the familiar setting. I do recognize faces to some degree, but I don't think it is very refined. Only the most beloved, utterly fmailiar, or truly fear-inspiring faces seem to imprint strongly on my brain. I can draw well, but if you were to ask me to draw a face of someone I love, I'd have trouble remembering what their face looked like. I would get the clothing, body posture, hair, facial hair, and basic details down, but fine details (shape and size of nose, shape and set of eyes, mouth, etc) would be absent or inaccurate.

In other words, people with prosopagnosia are very likely to either be friendly to everyone they see, or to treat everyone in a distant, hands off manner unless the other party initiates the recognition process (and then you feel pretty foolish and embarrassed). Recognition and the social bonds reinforced by it are likely to be impaired for people such as myself.

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