An autistic acquaintance mentioned that although she has aphantasia and therefore experiences some of the same issues I do with movies and new people, she finds face blindness mystifying.
I don’t blame her. I feel the same way, and I have face blindness.
I can say this: it’s not that I don’t pay attention to how people look. As a child who didn’t know she was autistic or face blind, I used to keep a mental list of the hair and eye color of everyone I knew. This seemed like such normal behavior to me that I was shocked to hear a grownup who’d seen me numerous times admit he didn’t know offhand what color eyes I had.
His were hazel-green, in case you were wondering. Which you probably weren’t, because why would you because even if you knew the guy you seriously do not need to care about this kind of detail unless you’re, I don’t know, planning to buy him a shirt that would bring out the color of his adorable peepers.
The point is, I was paying attention to people’s facial features. In my own way.
Which is not the way non-face blind people do. And that neurotypical way of noticing things is much more useful in terms of being a fellow human being. The man in question may not have known that I was five foot two with eyes of blue, but he could recognize me on sight. Which was more than I could do for him, which we both learned when I saw him in a crowd and didn’t know who he was until he greeted me verbally.
I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I was young enough to figure that it wasn’t my job to keep track of who all the grownups in the world were. Which was and remains true, but is a little beside the point. Said point being: it’s useful for humans to be able to recognize other humans who belong to their own particular group without having to see them many many many many times.
The thing about my own brand of face blindness – I can’t speak for anyone else – is that I do see faces. I see features. I even see resemblances between some people and others.
But those resemblances – the things that register as important to my mind – are not what other people notice.
The reason I was briefly, absurdly convinced that the two actors I mentioned in my previous post were actually the same person has to do with that facial expression I also mentioned. They share a sort of mouth-curves-down-eyebrows-arch-up grimace.
Which is the kind of information that’s useful to exactly NO one. Not a casting agent. Not a doting parent. No one.
But it’s the kind of information that my mind insists is vitally important. So I make blunders that are astoundingly foolish to those possessed of normal, useful information-processing systems.
Young teenage me: Guess what? I saw Edward at school today!
My older sister (Edward’s girlfriend): You did? What was he doing there?
Me: I don’t know. But he came up and said hi.
Sister: That’s weird.
Later that day:
Sister: I talked to Edward. He wasn’t at your school today.
Me: He was! I saw him!
Me: …unless I didn’t.
Me: I mean I saw someone who looked like him. And he said my name and said hi.
My other older sister: That wasn’t Edward. It was Allen. He got a job at your school.
Me: oh okay
My other older sister (Allen’s girlfriend): How on earth did you think Allan was Edward?
Me: It’s not my fault! They look a lot alike!
Both sisters: They look NOTHING alike!
And they didn’t. Edward was almost a foot shorter than Allen and had a different color, texture, and length of hair. They were white dudes who dated women with the same last name I had. That’s it.
Except they also both had a warm, teasing way of scrinching up their faces when they smiled, which they always did when they saw me because I was the dorky younger sister of their girlfriend and they were friendly fellows.
Guess what my brain decided to prioritize?
Having an idea about how people look can be a great thing if you’re a writer. A reader is going to fall asleep if I describe my character as being a white woman who’s five foot four inches tall and who has shoulder-length blonde hair that’s slightly wavy, blue eyes, dark eyelashes, and light eyebrows. The only person who’d be pleased to hear this kind of description is a police detective, and even he’s going to need more to go on than that.
But if I described this woman as having a warm, confiding smile and a maternal air in spite of her youth – well, she’s probably still going to get away with whatever crime she committed, but at least my readers will perk up a bit.
That kind of idea is the kind of thing my mind latches onto. I don’t register a blank when it comes to faces. I just don’t seem to put the information together in the usual useful manner. It’s as if my brain can’t be arsed to care about how someone actually looks because I’m too busy caring about what they’re like.
Again: great for a novelist. Not so fabulous for an apartment manager.
Fortunately I’m both, so I have a fifty-fifty chance of being right.