Living with Autism: Face- and Mind-Blindness

Thank you for reading my piece about living with autism, which started as a Twitter thread at the end of 2016.

Today I want to talk about two things that are unrelated, except they have similar names and I suffer from both of them.

Face-Blindness

The first one is face-blindness, or prosopagnosia. I am given to understand that 2.5% of the population suffers from this disorder, so I’m glad I’m not alone.

Let me give you an example of how it affects me.

Let’s say you’re watching a movie with that blonde actress with the long hair. Gwyneth Paltrow, yes. Wasn’t she just amazing in Shakespeare in Love and the Marvel superhero films?

Gwyneth was also in Charlie’s Angels, and There’s Something About Mary, and the Shrek movies – except she wasn’t. That was Cameron Diaz. I can’t tell them apart visually. I always confuse the two. I have to rely on other cues (voice, mainly) to remind myself that they’re different.

That’s a simple example. Something more profound is that if you change your hairstyle, or dress in a different way, or if we bump into each other in a place that is not our usual setting, I will probably not recognise you. Context is everything.

I have on many occasions been told that I walked right past someone and didn’t acknowledge them, and was therefore rude. The truth is, I didn’t recognise them. Not even my own sister, when she said it happened a few years ago. I believe her, but I have no memory of the incident.

The other night, I was at a public event with a group of friends and family, and towards the end of the evening, someone was taking photos right next to me. She looked just like my friend who was at the party, so I assumed it was her and spoke to her. When I turned away, I saw the friend on the other side of the room and realized my error.

A few years ago, several months after becoming friends with a group of people who shared a house together, it struck me that one of them was familiar to me. One evening, with everyone watching (isn’t it always like that?), I said to her that she was extremely familiar, and I just couldn’t place where I knew her from.

It was then that she asked if I’d ever watched an extremely popular television series (in her words, “did you ever watch [Redacted]?”). As realization dawned, several people in the room were amused to watch me finally recognize one of my favourite actors, who was at that moment making me a cup of tea.

This is why I have no shame. I’d be permanently embarrassed.

Mind-Blindness

The second type of blindness is more abstract, and refers to a concept known as Theory of Mind.

Speaking for myself again, and this is literally why I can’t speak for others, mind-blindness means that I have difficulty seeing things from someone else’s perspective.

I believe that a lot of stereotypical autistic behaviour stems from this cognitive disorder. Complex thoughts, feelings and emotions that you are experiencing at any given time, are opaque to me when interacting with you, and therefore I may not react in an appropriate manner.

The character of Sheldon Cooper, on the TV show The Big Bang Theory, demonstrates classic behaviour related to this disorder. In social settings, he constantly responds inappropriately to cues and emotions expressed by the other characters.

Of course it is exaggerated for humour, and it is never said in the show that he is on the spectrum, but all the signs are there.

Academically, I understand this disorder, and once I learned about it after my diagnosis, it helped with my anger issues. It’s not that people weren’t understanding me, it’s that I wasn’t understanding other people.

Emotionally, it’s difficult. I might repeatedly ask people “what are you thinking?” to try to understand and associate certain physical actions (particularly in a person’s face and eyes) with emotional state. But if you’re having a bad day, the last thing you might want is inappropriate questioning about your mental state.

I’m 40 now, so I’m a lot better at doing this Theory of Mind thing, but it requires conscious mental effort to do so.

Taken into account with all the other stuff going on in my head, it’s a wonder I can even walk straight (that was a joke – I’m extremely clumsy).