Teachers are tasked with teaching children how to read facial expressions in others, but there is a subset of autism in which the person, adult or child, is “face blind,” making that task extremely difficult. People with this condition simply cannot recognize faces, period. How can a person of any age learn how to “read” facial expressions when they cannot “recognize” the person’s face as unique? All faces are a blank slate revealing no information to a face blind person.
Prosopagnosia, its official name, is so little known that professional psychologists who must determine injury in accidents frequently have never heard of it. Research and identification are so recent that its demographic occurrence has not been documented. It has no relationship to the acuity of sight, which can be anywhere from perfect to totally trashed. It is related in some unknown way to information processing within the brain. Considering these factors, how is a Special Education teacher, or classroom peers for that matter, supposed to recognize and handle the situation? The first step is to become familiar with the disorder.
There are several forms and degrees of face blindness. Some people are affected so profoundly that they wouldn’t even recognize a recent photo of their own mother if it is shown to them. Others are less severely affected. Some people are born face blind. Others acquire it at a later age as a result of head injury or other factors. Either way, the person affected is at a troubling disadvantage in that every person (and occasionally every item) they meet is a stranger until they are identified through alternative means.
When someone comes up to them and starts talking, they are expected to know who that person is and in what context they are known to the face blind person. Neither is possible. The most courteous accommodation is to greet the face blind person with something like, “Hi, I’m Maggie from your Math module. We talked about the number four yesterday.” The name gives the face blind person a way to address the other person and triggers recognition through the auditory component of the name. The Math part gives the face blind person a context to place that person in, and connects them with a series of interactions that relate to actions instead of visual perception. The face blind person now has the individual identified as a specific member of a group who has interacted in a specific way in the past. Without these connections, the person in front of them is a total stranger, no matter how long they have been in contact with each other.
Many people who have difficulty recognizing faces also have difficulty recognizing symbols. Applied to teaching facial expressions, this means that a face blind person cannot recognize the difference between eyebrows that are raised and the same eyebrows that are not raised. Considering that some people have eyebrows that are higher or lower than “average” as a natural position, this means that the face blind person cannot distinguish the difference between the two states. Their only recognizable clue is the movement that is made during the action of raising or lowering the eyebrows, not the position itself.
The eyebrows are usually allowed to move freely, and since eyebrows are the most visible, most expressive, and most accurate indication of the emotional process of the other person, this inability to distinguish between one state (a noun) and another can be a major roadblock to learning to read facial expressions.
Similarly, the inability to differentiate between a simple triangle and a simple square is not usually the problem in symbol recognition. It is when the symbol is more complex that the problem shows up. The lower case “a” and the “at” sign “@” is a case in point. These symbols interspersed in our daily correspondence makes learning to read advanced material extremely difficult for the face blind person. A computer reading program that translates the visual to the auditory format is one coping mechanism, as the auditory functions are not necessarily implicated in the condition.
Another frequently associated difficulty is the recognition of nouns. Why the names of things and not the action words are implicated remains a mystery, but the word “apple” will draw a blank stare while the word “run” poses no difficulty. Why this differentiation exists is unknown at this point. The coping mechanism is to use a lot of adjectives in speaking with the face blind person.
“The beautiful apple” may be readily understood since the adjective “beautiful” brings up a subset of expectations that indicate a name is coming up next.
“Mary ran down the hall” may elicit only the picture of some unknown person running somewhere around a mall, a hall, a wall, a stall or any number of other ambiguities, but the action of running will be clearly understood.
The work-around is something like, “My sister Mary ran down the long hall.” “Sister” in conjunction with “Mary” identifies the actor, “long” can only apply to certain possible named words in the face blind persons vocabulary, greatly narrowing the choices, and usually permitting the selection of the intended one.
This assumes that the face blind person is a visual learner. The words need to be adjusted for other learning modalities, of which there are as many as there are physical information intake channels, vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell, feel, and movement.
Finally, face blindness is a living hell all on its own that means shame, disengagement, and failure in every part of life. Learning what other people are feeling is a long way down the line of items of interest to the person whose environment becomes a complete unknown as soon as they turn their head to look elsewhere. A calm demeanor and a “that’s just the way it is” acceptance goes a long way in gaining the trust of the face blind person. To them, the situation is “normal” and “normal” can’t be cured, nor should it be a cause of shame or failure. It’s just something else to be worked into a normal life in a normal world.