Prosopagnosia (faceblindness) is the inability to recognise people by their faces. That includes one’s own face. I can only identify myself in photos if the clothes are familiar and I remember the event. School photos, team photos, tour photos, departmental photos, all are landmines. I’m puzzling myself out, don’t ask me to identify the other people!
Prosopagnosia (faceblindness) is the inability to recognise people by their faces. You never know when you’ve blithely walked right past a neighbour or classmate.
Even those people more familiar to you who you might be able to identify – slowly, consciously, by their hair, voice, or gait – are easily missed when they’re out of the places you associate them with, i.e. your doctor at the grocery.
It’s hard to make friends when you can’t recognise people. Worse, others make so many misassumptions about you.
It’s a different thing being around other autistics.
Well, doubtless I’ve been around other autistics before. But when we did not know we were, there was all that stress from passing (“pretending to be normal”), so generally weren’t aware of what our sensory and other needs actually were, much less how to comfortably, genuinely, be ourselves.
Now it’s different.
(1) A little morning talk over my cuppa tea. Then he says, “Well, that’s enough social interaction for a while.”
He returns to his computer work, and I chuckle as I go out the door.
IT’S LOVELY when constant conversation or chit-chat aren’t expected.
(2) Yesterday I took a day trip to London to meet a friend from the States.
We met at the train station, where (being faceblind) I texted him my location and held a page with his name so he could find me.
After he bought his sausage roll, I suggested eating on the less-crowded, quieter mezzanine level. Together again after a long absence, we sat talking about how much less stressful it was not being in the States: him not worrying about being shot at, and myself not being awoken by gunfire. Alas, we were unsuccessful at not talking about Trump and disability and healthcare and racial and social care and environmental and- and- and- US politics Bllaarrgg. (The actual convo didn’t have many paragraphs, or rather, not spoken aloud. But I flapped a little in frustration.)
Time to move on; we brushed off the inevitable puff-pastry crumbs. I geeked over riding trains and how different cities smelled, and he reminisced about subway announcements. We started to get on the first subway car but it was too claustro’, so we caught the next. En route to the British Museum, Waterstones bookstore sucked us in; he found books he was looking for. I checked out the wee toys, feeling more 5 than 55, more child than grandmother, as I checked out the shinies and tiny things and science toys.
We ambled to the Museum, pausing as needed for him to catch his breath or for my slow knees to ascend stairs. No need to apologise; no need to hurry.
Then finally at the Museum! Get maps and —
Have a cuppa tea and figure out what to see. This was not a Must See Everything tour; we both understood having to mete out our tolerances. Made a list. He suggested started and the fifth floor and working our way down — Excellent!
Oh boy. One lift out of service, and it took a bit of searching to find the other. And … the fifth floor Japan exhibit closed. Moving along … Third floor was fascinating. We took photos. SO crowded, so many languages going on, so many Auditory Processing Disorder blips for us to chat much.
By the time we got to the room with the Egyptian mummmies, it was a crush of noisy school children in addition to all the tourists. One couldn’t walk in a straight line, and hardly much take photos.
It was overstimulating. Too much noise and too much crowds and he needed a breather. Too many smell-shapes and flavoured colours and moving sounds and I needed to sit. We glanced at each other in instant agreement; he pointed towards an adjoining room and we wended our ways out. Sat and rested by the rune stones.
At the end I lost my pal in the vast space of the museum entrance and crowded plaza, so once again, I texted him my location and held a page with his name so he could find me. It being mid-afternoon, we did the sensible thing and regained our stamina with chips and ale in the pub across from the museum. Apparently 15:30 is a good time in a pub; there weren’t many there and we could hear each other speak. Recharging time: I rocked and he doodled.
That in turn meant that we were hungry for our evening meal at Café in the Crypt at St Martin-in-the-Fields during early evening. The food was hot and fresh, and we choose a table that felt secure near a pillar, instead of exposed from people surrounding our backs.
Back on the street after dinner, he announced, “I’m running low on spoons.” We stopped to rest at Trafalgar Square. Then my train was due in an hour, so parted we ways at the Northern Line.
IT’S LOVELY not having to justify eating at a particular table, or wanting to photograph the visual texture of fractured safety glass, or why subway announcements are so endearing. Or that one is getting overwhelmed and needs to rest and stim, or is running out of spoons.
Nor did it take us twenty minutes to say Good-bye; that was enough social interaction for a while.
WHO: “The Eleven Doctors”
Interestingly, the cartoon appears to have been designed by/for the faceblind — although maybe that’s just my interpretation!
[* THIS POST IS A PART OF BLOGGING AGAINST DISABLISM DAY 2010]
Or perhaps, just deliver an explanatory document to my boss and the HR (Human Resources) person at my second job.
My annual review was okay; very good on some things, okay on others, some recommendations (there always are — no one is perfect after all). But something mentioned was to get to know the regular customers by name. I have, after all, been here a year, and grocery stores have a core set of regular customers that come through once, if not several times, a week. It’s not hard to learn names when you’re checking them out, as the names appear on their check or on the register (till) screen when they use a debit or credit card.
But of course, most people have no difficulty distinguishing or remembering faces.
I on the other hand, have that lovely invisible disability of prosopagnosia, or face-blindness. I don’t recognize people by their faces. I cannot easily or quickly identify people. And, I cannot remember faces. Sure, I’ve learned to (consciously, relatively slowly) identify a core set of the people with whom I work regularly. I know my immediate bosses, the store manager, some of the other managers, and several of the checkers and sackers, a few stockers, and one each of several butchers, florists, pharmacists, and cooks.
But they are likely less than 25% of the total employees. I’m not sure how many there really are, because part-timers tend to come and go, and also, to me the other employees form a general mass of generic persons, all of whom follow the same prescribed dress code.
Ah yes, the dress code. The great thing about jobs I have is that the school and the grocery both require people to wear name tags. Not only can I be sure with whom I’m speaking, but they also allow me to check and memorize the names once I have figured out how to identify that person regularly. Whee!
But, unlike the school, the grocery has a dress code. It’s not overly fastidious, just along the lines of slacks + collared shirt, except when we are to wear a specific color of shirt on Fridays & weekends. Of course, there’s a down side — when I need to find say, my assistant manager to ask him a question, there’s an entire giant supermarket just riddled with people in blue button-down or polo [golf, tennis] shirts — and some of those are customers!
I cannot just glance over a crowd of people and instantly spot the person I need. They don’t “pop out”. (No, not even my family members!) Instead, I must examine each person and compare their overall size, haircut, gender, and coloration to my mental gestalt. Of course, it’s easier if I’m looking for say, a taller, brown person — that means I only have to scan each aisle for (1) blue shirts, (2) tall people, (3) brown-skinned people, and (4) the particular haircut, gait and voice that is one of the assistant managers.
That sounds fairly easy, or at least efficient, right? But that’s still walking down some 15+ aisles and side-aisles, visually sorting each adult-size person. And quite possibly the guy’s in the back scanning office or stock room or upstairs office or break room or in a restroom or retrieving something from the outside loading dock or where-ever-the-hell managers go when they go poof and disappear.
Thank heavens I can get on the intercom and page him to call extension 137 or whatever. In turn, when I’m needed to be an extra checker or to meet with someone, the various managers have been very nice about paging me by my name-and-department or by my whole name. I’ve not really bothered to explain the whole Auditory Processing Disorder thing; I’ve just said that it’s hard for me to understand the pages sometimes, especially if my head’s down in a refrigerated case with its noisy fans, or I’m in the back room pulling stuff out of shipping cartons.
But you know, it’s difficult to explain faceblindness in 25-words-or-less. No one’s heard of it, and the fact that I can in some manner still identify some people enough of the time makes it even more baffling to people. And of course, there’s the old, “Oh, I have trouble remembering names and faces sometimes, too.”
Well, yeah. But you still recognize people, in a split-second of unconscious thought. You are aware that you know these people. You may even know where you know all those people from. You just have trouble remembering the names that go with those faces.
I never do. And except for the couple-dozen very morphologically distinctive customers, I’m not likely to remember any of them.
Silly people, they keep changing their physical characteristics, wearing different clothes through the seasons, changing their hairstyles, their purses, their hats or glasses, and so on. Sometimes they have family members with them, and sometimes not. Their children have this incredible ability to grow and morph dramatically. And of course, the customers keep changing the details of how they interact with me, and will need my help finding something in one aisle or another, or check out at different times of day, or whatever. Good heavens, sometimes people whom I know from other parts of my life will come through — the pharmacist will be shopping in their street clothes instead of standing behind their counter in a lab coat, my neighbor, or a former student will greet me, and they usually expect me to know them when they are out of their usual environments. (At least my ophthalmologist understands that I’ve hardly ever seen him with my glasses on.)
Alas, the world is too full of generic people seen on an intermittent basis. Once in a great while, somebody comes by to ask me a question, and it isn’t until they begin to speak to me that everything clicks, and I realize this is my daughter or son-in-law!
I’m really quite helpful to customers, am conscientious about getting the stock rotated and shelved with the right price tag, do a great job of setting up displays, make a point to be sure that the back stock is checked so it gets on the floor, am careful when bagging so the cold items are together and the eggs are all okay and the bread and produce doesn’t get squished, and so on.
It’s just that I will never be able to learn very many customers, or even all the employees. And much as I would like to have this magical skill that 98% of the rest of the population has, my disability is far outweighed by all the other things that I can do well. I’m not lazy or stupid. It’s just that I have an invisible disability.
“We have a special going on in our natural foods aisle, right now! You can get your specialty questions answered by our very own over-educated scientist-grocery stocker! That’s right, weekends and evenings only, over in our natural foods aisle! And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”
It’s one thing to be helping someone find the curious location where the grocery manager decided to stock the barley. No, not with the rice and beans — that’d be too easy; it’s with the bouillon.
And it’s another thing — but I get ahead of myself. (Alas, when I do that I’m likely to trip over my own feet and sprain an ankle, but that’s hypermobility for you).
One evening, every other row of fluorescent lights was off, as was the canned music. Apparently they were filming a commercial or some advertising stills. Whatever, we had a couple hours of bliss. Why can’t the store be so calm and pleasant all the time? Because the people who study customer behavior say that noise and lights are important. Or maybe the grocery industry just thinks that noise and lights are important. Or maybe old research suggested such. Or maybe stores are following some historical misinterpretation of behavioral research. Hell if I know. As for me, the canned music just adds unnecessary background noise, aggravating my Auditory Processing Disorder. Did someone just page Manager to the Customer Service Desk or Andrea to the Customer Service Desk? Did my boss just page me to dial 14 or aisle 14? “Oops, sorry, mis-heard you with all the background noise,” I apologise to an older gentleman, as I lead him away from the [recycled paper] brown plates to the bran flakes.
Sometimes a customer will ask for something not on the shelf, so I helpfully zip down to the back room to see if there’s any in backstock. Usually, there isn’t, because by definition, backstock is the overflow that won’t fit on the shelves. Alas, if I’m in a distracted mood, I will forget to make a mental note of what the customer is wearing, and upon my return, will have that panicked second when I realise that they have moved onto another aisle, and I am supposed to find them. Oh, the perils of being faceblind: I can’t remember people! Were they alone, or with another adult, or children? Did they have a large or small cart? Do I have any idea of whether they were male, female, or some overbundled or indeterminately-coiffed gender? Were they were pink- or brown-skinned? Hat? Fancy purse? Team jacket? Why can’t everyone be as distinctive as the fellow who dressed like Eddie Izzard’s less-chic sibling?
My other problem of course, is that I actually answer the questions about the things we sell. Some day, someone is going to get annoyed.
Once in a while I stock groceries over in the natural foods section. It’s pretty much like stocking groceries over in the unnatural foods section, except that omitting artificial coloring makes food more expensive. That and the aisles are narrower, so I have to park the flatbed down at the ends of the aisles and lug more cases. One day I forgot my knee pads, and realised with a heavy note of irony that stocking all the arthritis treatments was making my knees ache.
“Um, where do you sell the sugar?”
“The sugar?” I repeat, buying a moment’s time while I re-engage my customer-conversation scripts, and activate my mental map of the store.
“Yes, I want the sugar without any chemicals.”
Omigod. Aside from bottled water, the bags of sugar are probably one of the purest chemical resources in the entire store.
“But sugar is just sucrose; it doesn’t have any added chemicals,” I manage to shut my mouth before going onto explain that sucrose is a disaccharide of glucose and fructose. Nobody cares … “Here are our organically-grown sugars on this shelf. And we also have sucanat and turbinado, if you’d like.” (These latter two are less-processed forms of cane sugar; they have varying amounts of tasty molasses impurities that also make them brown.)
Honestly, a “chemical” is simply a substance with a defined composition. You already know what H2O is. Sucrose is C12H22O11 – there are 12 Carbon molecules, 22 Hydrogen molecules and 11 Oxygen molecules. Of course, just knowing how many atoms of each element isn’t enough – other sugars such as lactose and maltose also have the same formula. The differences are in how those atoms are arranged.
And if you’re shopping for plant fertilizer, a nitrate is a nitrate is a nitrate, and they’re all NO3-. The plant doesn’t care where the molecules came from, nor can it tell the difference if the nitrate came from an organic (naturally-derived) source or an artificially-manufactured source. That said, organic fertilizers are more expensive and less concentrated, but are less likely to result in a build-up of salts atop the potting soil.
But please, don’t ask me for anything “chemical-free”; the only thing that is “chemical free” is an absolute vacuum.
I retrieve random things left on the shelves, where someone has left a box of Big Name mac & cheese amongst the organic mac & cheese, a shopping list, a wee sample cup given out by the guy flogging new flavors of hummus, and a box of Airborne.
“What does that do?” asks the other grocery stocker, gesturing at the colorful box that proclaimed, “Created by a school teacher!”
“Nothing. There’s no research evidence to support it at all. A grade-school teacher is not the same thing as a compounding pharmacologist.” Were I in charge of ordering, we wouldn’t waste shelf space for nonsense like that, or for things like Bragg vinegar that is supposed to “help remove body sludge toxins”. Body sludge toxins, what nonsense! (I suppose it’d help the lime buildup in my sink drain.)
“Excuse me, where are your all-natural gummy candies?”
Because you know, gummy candies are so natural. Wow, I’d love to have a shrub that produced gummies, especially the cherry and liquorice sorts. Does the soil have to be aerated by gummy worms? I hope it’s not thorny … “They’re over here, on the top shelf. Is there anything else for which you’re looking?”
“Attention grocery shoppers! Are you looking for holiday candy and merchandise? You can find it all over in aisle 14, where we have a wide selection of holiday candies in Fun Sizes, all your same favorites as the last holiday, but wrapped in this holiday’s color themes! Don’t forget to get some holiday-themed merchandise for your loved ones, and holiday-themed party goods as well. And THANK YOU for shopping your local supermarket chain grocery!”
“Now remember — you’re special, just like everyone else!”
It seems that classic punch line (for all the jokes on useless self-esteem boosters) was never truer. At the ever-entertaining NeuroLogica Blog, Steven Novella explains recent findings that everyone is a mutant.
Given my numerous neurological quirks, I had long assumed my mutant status to be true, and when finally diagnosed with prosopagnosia (which can result from a single point mutation), I then took it to be a given.
As Novella, points out, not all mutations give one super-powers; in fact, most of mutations are neither beneficial nor detrimental. There’s certainly nothing exciting about hyperacussis, as I’d previously described in Can you sue your Fairy Godmother for malpractice? Some things like the are just annoying; were I graceful, the hypermobility might have enabled me to be a dancer or gymnast. Instead, I’m just arthritic and bruised, for all it’s handy to always be able to reach that itchy spot.
100 – 200 mutations per person may be trivial in the genomic sense, but is far from trivial when considering human diversity. Mutation is normal. It’s ubiquitous. Not only are there no “perfectly average” people, but we’re all mutants. Now, can we finally lay disablism, transphobia, and the rest of the xenophobic rot to rest?
Now ‘scuse me while I go for a soak in the tub; maybe I can distract meself from this silly jingle that’s gotten stuck in my head:
I’m a mutant, you’re a mutant, xe’s a mutant, too.
We’re all alike in our differences, so whatcha gonna do?
A few weeks ago …
“4011 !” I exclaimed to my daughter.
She looked up from her Mac where she was composing her latest essay. “What?” she asked in confusion.
“They started me on cashiering today at the grocery. 4011 !”
And then we both broke out laughing.
“4011” of course being the PLU (Price Look Up) code for bananas.
When she started as a grocery cashier the other year, my daughter had commented in amazement at how many people came through with bananas. So many in fact, that she too had learned that number the first night, just from sheer force of repetition.
I would have thought that apples would be the most-commonly purchased fruit. But no, endless bunches of bananas came through.
Not only bunches of bananas, but also bunches of people with similar behavioral patterns, which I found to be rather interesting:
- People with a large bunch of greenish bananas. (I wondered if they were feeding a lot of people, or simply don’t care about the stage of ripeness when eating them.)
- Customers trying to balance their fruit bowl with a couple each of greenish and yellow bananas.
- Parents herding several small children, with bunches of bananas that had the requisite number of stickers for each child to have one. These were difficult checking assignments — not because of the parents, but because as a cashier I was also trying to keep track of the assorted tots with regards to alerting their adult to their safety, or asking their adult if the candy or toy items coming down the conveyor belt were approved purchases.
- People with bunches of the organically-grown bananas (PLU 94011; all the organic produce starts with a 9).
- Tired working folks picking up a sandwich from the deli, a banana, and an energy drink for their meal.
- Frazzled parents rushing through with bananas, applesauce and bread. ( = “BRAT diet”: bananas, rice, applesauce, toast, a menu for dealing with diarrhea via dietary intervention.)
- Frequent shoppers with just a few yellow bananas — I heard a lot of apologetic explanations about not being able to plan ahead for weekly menus and shopping lists, and wondered why some people felt the need to explain their purchase choices, unbidden.
- A few elderly shoppers who explained that they couldn’t carry many grocery bags, or used frequent shopping as a means of getting out of the house. After a while, I realised that such explanations were probably a curious form of chit-chat.
Although I began to develop my own “scripts” for appropriate cashier dialogs, I found that cashiering is a more challenging position than I had anticipated. This is because there are a number of different kinds of simultaneous cognitive demands, involving spatial handling, operational sequencing, data entry, calculations, communicating in a noisy environment despite my auditory processing issues, struggling to identify numerous coworkers despite faceblindness, and socialising with the appropriate amount of eye contact and proscribed chit-chat.
Cashiering doesn’t just mean scanning groceries and making change. I am not only trying to scan accurately and quickly, but also:
- performing subtle security checks to make sure that no one is walking off with unchecked goods on the bottoms of their carts or pocketing the candy and other small goods near the register racks;
- sorting the goods as I move it down towards the bagger courtesy clerk in whatever organisational method that person prefers;
- querying the customer about coupons and whether they wanted the gallon milks bagged and if they want candy and greeting cards handed to them instead of bagged
- explaining discounts and how gift cards work;
- looking up endless PLU codes for the numerous types of untagged produce;
- watching out for children’s safety;
- greeting the next customer in line so they didn’t feel neglected during the wait;
- trying to remember who the manager is that night for when I need to call them to void a mis-scan;
- and of course, bagging while I check when the regular courtesy clerk has switched from my lane to another with greater need.
When bagging, bananas are a tricky item. I can put vulnerable loaves of bread atop the fragile egg cartons, but aside from soft packs of sugar, toilet paper or maxi-pads, there are few items that will co-exist happily with bananas when packed in limp plastic bags.
Given that bananas are nutritious, don’t require refrigeration or heating, and can be eaten quickly, they have recently filled my lunchbox, er, meals-box that carries both my lunch and third meal. I drive directly from one job to the next, with just 10-15 minutes for a snack to tide me over between 11 a.m. lunch and clocking out again at 8 p.m. (I usually have a fourth meal when I get home; call these breakfast-lunch-tea/supper-dinner or whatever, but the third meal is usually rather minimal.) So what’s the best way to transport a banana safely? I drop it into a tall plastic drink cup.
Thankfully, I spend most of my time at the garden center end, rather than endless hours of checking. But in this latest addition to my repertoir of work roles, I have literally gone bananas.
BayDisability has begun blogging about prosopagnosia, and how it affects her life. Because hers is an acquired case, it has affected her profoundly. (Amazingly, it’s not some strange story she came up with to create “lesbian drama”! Oy.)
I have to say that from the self-reports I’ve read, faceblindness due to injury is much more disabling than the developmental (genetic) sort, such as I have. I think this is probably due to the fact that for those of us who have always been this way, our brains have adapted to using auxiliary clues from the start.
We don’t know any other way of identifying people than through their overall physical shape, gait, voice, hair style, mannerisms, and favorite articles of clothing. We do however, spend our lives in a perpetual state of background free-floating anxiety due to either not knowing why we have problems, or being aware of our problems and then trying to consciously apply what coping methods we can.
This is not to say that despite our limited coping abilities, we don’t have the typical long litanies of embarrassing moments of not recognising people, of mis-recognising people (thinking a person is someone else), of “twinning” two similar people into one, of “losing” familiar people (even family members!) in crowds, of misunderstanding movie plots, of being totally clueless about celebrities, of being stressed to the gills with learning new job tasks as well as trying to reliably identify a couple of key people, of …
However, the person who acquires prosopagnosia has a much harder time with the socially disabling aspects. And with faceblindness, it’s all socially disabling, and the “social model of disability” is apparent to a degree that warrants billboard-size attention. The “social model of disability” refers to Continue reading The very model of a social disability