Most of us have times when it’s hard to recall someone’s name, although we recognize the face. We readily admit, “I’m terrible with names” as a disclaimer when we first meet someone so he won’t be offended in the future if his name slips out of our grasp. This difficulty with name recall is both common and understandable. Unless an individual’s name makes it from our working memory into our long term memory, and pretty quickly, we are not likely to remember it in the future. For most of us, it is easier to recall the visual information and appearance of another person’s face than the auditory information of a name. Sometimes we recognize someone but can’t remember the context in which we met them. Church? Community activity? Friend of a friend? Because this is such a common experience, most people are pretty forgiving if we’ve forgotten the name but at least show recognition that we have met before. Often, there is mutual forgetfulness and the other person does not remember our names, either. No harm done.
My son, Josh, has significant working memory challenges. I realized over time that my son not only was unable to recall names, neither could he readily recall faces. He had no difficulty recognizing those of us he interacted with on a regular basis, but for those he saw infrequently he honestly had no memory or context for knowing them. It would be unsettling for him when virtual strangers (to his mind) would call him by name and initiate a conversation. Josh has never been good at faking anything, so he would genuinely ask, “Do I know you?” or “I’m sorry, but have we met?” Unfortunately, this attempt to be polite and seek clarification had negative social implications. People naturally feel hurt when others don’t remember them, especially people whom they remember quite clearly and have shared past experiences. I remember a mother of one of my daughter’s friends coming up to me and telling me that Josh asked who she was and she told him “I’ve only known you for YEARS.” It was true, but months would go by in between each brief contact and Josh never transferred the information to his long-term memory so each contact was starting fresh – for him. If I told Josh who people were and when he had seen them before, it sometimes jogged a vague memory for him.
There is a name for this “face blindness”, and the term is “prosopagnosia”. In severe cases, individuals have difficulty recognizing their own family members, friends, and even themselves. Many people with autism, PDD, and Asperger Syndrome experience prosopagnosia. I guess Josh had a fairly mild version, and I wondered if what registered in his mind’s eye was like a snapshot of faces, rather than the more dynamic version of faces changing to reflect a variety of emotions. Since Josh used to have difficulty recognizing different emotions expressed on faces, I thought maybe he only had one still picture in his mind and if it didn’t match what he saw there was no recall. I don’t know for sure, and Josh has improved over the years. It’s too bad that there’s not facial recognition software we could install in our brains to help us make the connections. I have worked with many children with autism who focus on part of something rather than seeing the whole. If this happens when a child looks at a face, he may see just the nose, or only the mouth, and not how those parts comprise a face. I have had children stare at an object I’ve held in front of my face, without recognizing that there was a person holding the object. If a face is viewed as individual component parts without seeing the whole, that face is not likely to be recognized in the future.
For our verbal children with the language skills to express themselves, we can teach them strategies to ease the social tension. Having someone admit “I know lots of people have trouble remembering names, but I even have trouble remembering faces sometimes” may prepare others in advance so they won’t be offended or surprised when they have to reintroduce themselves. For our nonverbal or less verbal children, we can advocate for them by explaining the challenges of prosopagnosia and reassure others that it is not a personal slight when our children don’t acknowledge them with recognition. My hope is that when we explain that there is a neurological glitch, others will be more flexible and accepting and won’t misinterpret our struggling learner’s behaviors in a negative way.