Autism and the Ability to Recognize Faces

December 10, 2014 - Sheila Carney

Autism and the Ability to Recognize Faces

According to the Dana Foundation, up to two-thirds of people with an Autism Spectrum Disorder have difficulty recognizing the faces of people they interact with on a daily basis.1 The medical term for this condition is developmental prosopagnosia, often referred to as face-blindness. For these individuals, matching a name to the face of someone close to them, such as parents or siblings, can be difficult. Instead other characteristics such as voice, smell, body type, or clothing may be used to identify people they know.

For my son Hayden, facial recognition was always difficult. No matter how often they came over, he ran upstairs as soon as his grandparents, uncles, or neighbors came in the door. He viewed everyone as a stranger. Once at Cornerstone he saw a new person and asked his therapist, “Is that my mom?” He also used to follow people at the park who had a similar body-type to my brother. I had to watch him at all times, because even though he wasn’t a ‘runner’ (a child who may run off), he would follow complete strangers to their car in the parking lot if they were similar to his Uncle Bill in size.

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In the hopes of improving his ability to recognize faces, I started reviewing with him some pictures of his close family. We worked on learning Uncle Bill’s face, and how to recognize the real Uncle Bill. If I knew that Grandma and Grandpa were coming over on Saturday, we started on Monday night the week before, looking at pictures of them and labeling them. Every night I’d point to a picture and say, “Who’s this? Grandma.” He was not yet vocal but enjoyed pointing at all the faces repeatedly so I could tell him their names.

When Saturday came around, he was less likely to be upset that Grandma showed up. He was familiar with the concept of Grandma, and had seen her face all week. After months doing this activity, he would go to her when she arrived, rather than running in the opposite direction! Eventually he could label Uncle Bill’s picture as well, and is still able to recognize him today, despite seeing him just a few times a year. And I am glad to say he no longer follows strangers out into parking lots!

To study the faces, I made a head shot page for each family group. (For example, there were separate pages for each of the following: relatives that we only saw once a year, my side of the family, and my husband’s side.) You could also have a page for neighbor kids, teachers, or medical practitioners. It is important for the photo to just be of the face and nothing else. As mentioned before, other aspects of the body may be clues for recognition. For example, an individual with Autism may look at weight, height, shoes, jacket, or other clues, rather than focusing on the face. A face shot will help the person focus on facial features for identification. The free photo program Picasa2 allowed me to pull the headshots from the photos on my computer so that all the faces were the same size on the paper.

I then laminated each page and had it ready to practice before big holidays and family events such as Thanksgiving and birthday parties. I changed the photos once a year for anyone who changed in appearance.

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Identifying family members, pets, and therapists is actually an early program at Cornerstone for many clients. If your child is new to the center, be sure to send in pictures for this program. Practicing this at home is a great way to generalize the skills learned in the center to your home. If you have questions, check in with your child’s Lead.

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December 10, 2014, Sheila Carney

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