Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | October 14, 2012

Face Blindness: Autism, TAing, and learning my students names

I’m TAing my favorite class this quarter. It’s all about my special interest, there’s a lab section involved, and my advisor is teaching. I’m in charge of the lab section, and it involves giving a short lecture and then helping the students complete their labs. We have about 40 students, and see them twice per week. In order to better learn who is who, my advisor took pictures of each student, and made printouts of them for us, so we can study them without the students being physically present. And still, I can’t seem to figure out how to match all their faces to their names.

I’m just not good at learning who is who based on their faces. The way I recognize people is based on their height and outline/overall size, posture, hair color and style, whether they wear glasses or not (and how thick the rims of the glasses are), and facial hair – I once didn’t recognize a friend of mine for weeks because he’d grown a beard over the summer. Secondary clues include their clothes, and the sound of their voices. But their faces? Not so much. And please have mercy on me if one of them shows up in a context outside of the class… I can barely recognize them IN the context of class as it is. And the pretty pictures/cheat sheets my advisor has given me? Only somewhat helpful. Because the only thing it does is provide me with pictures of faces.

It’s not that I don’t care. It’s not that I don’t remember them. It’s just that I have an incredibly hard time with recognition of individuals. I’d be interested to know how other people do it. Do you have tricks and tips for recognizing people? Do you, like me, confuse people who look nothing alike, because they’re of the same height and have similar haircuts? I think “face-blindness” isn’t quite the right term for this… For one thing, it’s not exactly “blindness” that is the problem – I’m very observant, and can easily recognize the differences between people. It’s just assigning those particular traits to that individual that is my issue. For another, it’s not just the faces. Welcome to my world of people-recognition-confusion.


  1. I am so happy that you have written this post! I agree that the term ‘face blindness’ does not seem to fit!

    Both of my children and I are on the spectrum and when my (ex) husband would return from a deployment, we would have a heck of a time trying to find him in the crowd of sailors returning. Besides everyone wearing the exact same uniform, he would also have inevitability changed his appearance. I cannot tell you how many embarrassing situations we experienced by approaching the wrong sailor, thinking he was the husband/father we were looking for!

    We finally decided to stay back from the crowd and let him find us but I must add that when he would suddenly approach and attempt to hug or kiss me, my instict was to knock out this stranger who was making a blatant pass at me! LOL

    • Thanks for the comment, Tammy! My goodness, that sounds like something I would do!

  2. I think we need to declare this Face-Blindness week! 🙂 I am in the process of writing an article for a class I am taking on Face-blindness…but I agree the term doesn’t quite fit what we go through.

    It like the term “Selective Mutism,” selective?? really?? I didn’t select it. I am not sure why I have trouble recognizing people, or why those on the spectrum in general tend to have this issue. Maybe it is because we notice minute details (that most people don’t) but tend to miss the whole?

    For a long time I believed as I was told my whole life, that I just didn’t care enough about people to remember them. This is not true either! Before discovery of my autism, I began to accept it as a possible truth because I had no other explaination. I’m glad that I do now.

    I wish I could offer some tips or tricks to help, but I can’t. I don’t even recognize my son’s teacher when I see her (in the school). He has a new one now, so this time when I met her I tried to really look at her face and study it. I don’t even want to know what kind of lunatic I must have looked like when she was talking to me.

    I was trying to look at her eyes, the curve of her nose, desparately hoping that hte next time I see the woman I will recognize her. The unfortuate result was that I did not hear a word she said to me–not good when Mom doesn’t pay attention to what the teacher says. LOL And, I have not yet had the opportunity to test my experiment. I haven’t been back to the school to see her since.

    Sorry, I am rambling–too much coffee. I think I’ll make another cup!

    • Love the ramble! Seriously, though – I can totally relate… I can either a) listen to what you have to say say or b) try to remember what you look like for next time we meet. I prefer a.

      I try to solve this by being completely abashedly unashamed of my lack of ability with names – That makes it easier for me to say “sorry, I’m terrible with names. I’m really trying!” and I am always that awkward person to ask who the person is…

      • I usually smile pretend I know who they are, have a twenty minute conversation with them, and then when we walk away my husband says, “You have no idea who that was do you?”

      • Yesss! Just like that. 😀

    • I agree, I love the ramble too!!

      I am working on developing a working hypothesis on the cause of anxiety and depression with Autism and one thing I have noticed is how incorrect the expert opinions seem to be!

      I too notice the minuscule details but I believe I miss the whole picture because I am doubting the very details that I did observe! Does this make sense to anyone?

      I am seeing a CBT counselor and I happen to work with him in the same office, so you would think I would be able to describe what he looks like but nope, I could not accurately do this. I am concerned (in a weird funny (ha-ha) kind of way) that I will run into him in the community and I will not recognize him. I know he wears thick rimmed glasses though! LOL The last time I seen him in session, I realized I thought he had blond curly hair but actually it is straight grey hair. Even though I ‘know’ this now, I still cannot picture what he looks like!

      I also agree with the comment on selective mutism. I doubt most people that know me would describe me as having this but I know that I do. I absolutely am not selecting to be mute but I am unable to speak.

      I need to stop now or I will end up ‘monologuing’ my beliefs on where anxiety really begins with Autism. :}

      • Monologue all you want. 🙂 Monologuing in comments was my gateway to actually getting myself a blog…

        I also definitely agree that quite often, the “experts” are completely off base. We, the autistic people, are the real “experts” after all. 😛

  3. I have to give people nicknames and save them to my mental hard disk in order to remember them. As you know E, you are Tigger to me. 🙂

    I agree about Selective Mutism, I certainly don’t choose it and I am far from mute, I can make noises, just not words.

    • Boiiing 🙂 Tigger. I usually do OK if I can get the person to write down their first and last names for me. But when I have 40 new people at once, instead of just one, my abilities go flying out the window.

  4. My son is exactly as you described but likewise face blindness doesnt seem quite right for him. Conversely, I register people completely on faces. I love to look at faces, they are so interesting to me, especially in reference to others faces each with such unique lines, proportions, and shapes. I generally don’t notice if someone gets a haircut or loses weight other than to think something looks different because it changes the symmetry and proportion of their face. I wouldn’t be great at learning the students from picture either though since much of people’s face uniqueness is in movement and expression that isn’t in pictures. If I ever saw a picture of you, I would still likely pass you on the street without ever making the connection. Also, I rarely forget a face but still often struggle with recalling names and context, so it doesn’t always help to know, I somehow know someone but have no further idea about them. Honestly half the time somehow tells me their name I am so busy taking them in I realize I didnt listen to their name.

    • Yes, movement is a key factor in how I distinguish people. I can often tell people based on their footsteps, or based on how they stand and what their posture is like. Interesting to know Charlie is like me in this…

  5. This is a great post. Thanks for sharing. Good luck with the Lab. I’m sure you’ll do just fine.

    In thinking how to relate this bridge I’m trying to develop a gemological equivalent, or “gem color blindness” to face blindness with pictures of gemstones. The same element can cause different colors (e.g. chromium creates red and green), and gemstones with similar colors do not necessarily contain the same elements (vanadium also creates green).

    I hope the pictures will inspire hope. Have them be a type of talismans – motivations for doing the best you know how to facilitate better relationships.
    (Based on Eustacia Cutler’s book cover for Thorn in My Pocket.)“I promise that in the future, to your surprise, your dreams will have changed, and changed you. I know that is not what you want. What you want is a real talisman, a magic something you think I conjured up to coax Temple into joining life as you hope your child will. There was no magic, there was just doing the best I could. That’s the point, that’s the talisman. And never letting go of hope.”

    It’s a bit abstract. Does it make any sense?

  6. Would it help (or even be possible) to create a video cheat sheet for you to use? Maybe if you could get each person to introduce themselves and say one thing they like about the subject you’re teaching on video, you could then watch the video and have voices, body shapes and gestures to go with the names.

    I have the same problem recognizing faces. When my daughter came from college with a drastically different haircut I didn’t recognize her at the airport until my husband pointed her out. I also pick out my husband in crowds by the way he walks and we’ve been married 25 years. It’s embarrassing at times but whaddya gonna do, right? 🙂

  7. I only recently found out this is a “thing.” I just thought I was the typical absent-minded prof. I always depended on the tendency of students to sit in roughly the same spot and I hated that groups of friends tended to have similar hair cuts and even similar hair colors. If their names began with the same sound, I relied solely on seating. This worked until one day a student was absent. There were two students with similar hair/height. Jeff always sat to the left, John to the right. One day only one showed up. At the end of class, he came up to me and said, “You’ve been calling me John all through class. I’m Jeff.”

    On the other hand, I have always found it rather easy to tell identical twins apart, even when others had trouble.I have no idea why this would be different.

    My sons seem to have also inherited this face-blindness. They have failed to recogniz me before and I have had to tell them who I am. This summer they asked to have their hair cut extremely short. Each came screaming out of the bathroom screaming, “I don’t recognize me!”

    • Yes, that’s definitely a good way to remember students – where they sit… that does help a lot. I have the same issues – and actually, I find similar-looking students sometimes group together. ARG!

  8. thank you thank you to the woman whos husband is in the military- it made me laugh and mostly this ” glitch” makes me laugh not at all. I just returned to work and introduced myself to a woman I have worked with for five years because she got her hair cut. I don’t believe most people are kind about this – as I age I find solace in being with my family or alone- these social situations are so stessfull and I am exhausted with trying to compensate. Does anyone know how to “fix this?” I am playing luminosity but it isn’t the same problem as the characters all dress the same- in real life people change clothes.

  9. Yes, this has been very painful for me in the world of academics. It has led to some serious problems. No matter how I try to explain it to people the difficulty I have is always written off. After struggling with it for over ten years, I’ve decided it is just too exhausting to teach and I am leaving academics.

  10. Well, I’m not ASD, my daughter is, but maybe as you read their reports and look at their name while reading them it will help. I’m lousy putting names with faces, but I can remember detailed conversations and the person, just not the name. People don’t seem to mind when they realize I really do remember them, just not their name. And, yes, smile a lot, people tend to be so self consumed they won’t realize.

  11. I have some variation of this problem. It is very hard for me to remember faces and attach names to them. This made school a little difficult for me because I never knew anyone’s names. I also have some trouble recognizing voices.

  12. I’m a former EFL teacher and I taught groups of 10-12 people for two hours per day for three weeks at a time. I would typically have six to eight different groups in a week, which made for a *lot* of names and faces to remember! I’m no good at names anyway but this was torture!

    My technique was to make a visually representative name plan of each class. I would write down each student’s name on a ‘map’ of the class: so, if Pierre was on the left at the front, his name was bottom left on the plan, Anna, who sat beside him, was next on the plan, etc. They sat in a U-shape so my plan had a list of names in a U-shape design. That said, my students were not allowed to move seats – not sure how practical that would be for you…

    I would also announce at the beginning of the first lesson with each new group that although I had many talents ;), I was hopeless with names, especially out of context, so if ever I met them outside the class and blanked them, not to take it personally. It happened more than once and each time they reintroduced themselves without hesitation.

    • I too, do the “I’m horrible with names, so if I run into you out of context, please don’t be offended if I don’t recognize you instantly!” – it works surprisingly well.

    • I colour code each student (using infill on a spreadsheet). I use the border command to box what I’m recording for each student. So little ploys to put a skinning-boundary around what I know of each student; ploys to separate what I know of one student, from what I know of another student. I try to bring the student-I-know to-mind, whenever I think or speak about them; so holistic referencing/recalling rather than thinking about aspects of students.

  13. I do this too!! I’m visually impaired, as well as being–maybe–an Aspie, so that doesn’t help. I get two sometimes three of my proffs at school confused /all the time/. And two of my friends who look alike. And actors who don’t but do to me. Its so annoying!!

  14. I too use the “I’m not good with names ploy”, and I sometimes mix up names; all within whole-school or classroom events. It’s uncertainty rather than blindness with me. I go off on autistic sensing and thinking and acting, admidst groupings of children on the spectrum; and sometimes I find myself not sure how far off the social radar I’ve gone.
    I’m aware of how I sense or read others, is not as the social picture of things would have it; and even more aware that the sensing of students on the spectrum strays even further from that picture.
    I tutor students in woodwork. To record their achievements I take hundreds of pictures. Students also take pictures in the classroom, and that can give some indication of how they sense and experience their world. I, and students, spend a lot of time looking at these pictures, going back over years of school life; the pictures stored on hard-drives.
    We end up, across these pictures and numerous other aspects of school life, “knowing” each other very well. Within our small school situation, within the community of that school, we remember who the other is pretty well. But just how we know each other, is autistically weighted, is being done across autistic ways of sensing and perceiving. Recognising and naming is then something we also do pretty well, but rather as something going on in parallel to the much more important matter of knowing each other autistically.
    I find how confidently I can recall and name, so ultimately recognise the other as someone known, depends on the extent to which I’m being allowed to act out the autistic aspect of myself. If that side of things is going reasonably well, and I’m on something of an autistic high, then confidence and recall are good. If I’m being battered because my acting out autistically is seen as being wrong and inappropriate, then recall and naming can be threatened. I presume my students on the spectrum are subject to similar life-difficulties.
    Being emotionally connected in an autisticlife-affirming way, keeps recognising and naming pretty good in our school situation. Anxieties associated with the autistic seem to put such recognising and naming under a degree of threat. Inclusion in the life of a community appears to support recognising and naming going well-enough.

    • That’s really interesting – thanks so much for your comments 🙂 I like your thought about doing better when letting yourself “be” autistic, as opposed to forcing yourself to hide it… probably you do better, because you can put energy into faces/names instead of to passing… thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  15. In high school, since the students were still in their assigned seats, I simply just remembered where they sit. Then, over time, I also matched their faces with the desks they were sitting at.

    In graduate school now, however, I now use Facebook to help me. After all, a lot of them do have accounts.

    Teaching (as I know I would do soon), since I do have groups incorporated in my syllabus, I can simply have my students sit according to their groups.

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