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Autism Survival Skills: How to Identify People if You Have Difficulty Recognizing Faces

Updated on June 28, 2016
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Kylyssa Shay is a middle-aged American woman living with autism who enjoys sharing hard-earned life hacks with people who need them.

Even if you can't recognize faces you can still learn how to correctly identify people.
Even if you can't recognize faces you can still learn how to correctly identify people. | Source

You Can Learn to Identify People Even if You Are Face-Blind

Do you have an autism spectrum disorder and have difficulty recognizing people you've met before? I do. It's called face-blindness or prosopagnosia, an inability to or a difficulty with recognizing faces. My issue is more of a difficulty than a complete inability to recognize faces, but it's been embarrassing and detrimental, especially in the business world.

My problem identifying people I've already been introduced to isn't due to my memory being poor, but, in a way, due to it being a bit too good. I have great visual memory, but I seem to remember a bit too precisely sometimes and I have difficulty if a person's face has changed too much from the last time I saw him. I could probably pick him out of a lineup with confidence within a weeks' time, assuming he'd made no major changes in his appearance. I could even probably recognize him from a photo taken within a few weeks of the last time we met even years later, again, assuming he'd made no major changes to his appearance between our meeting and the time the photo was taken. But most people can still clearly recognize faces that have changed a lot, even with years of change, and I can't.

Faces change. A lot.

I have a dilly of a time being certain I've identified a person correctly if the percentage of difference in a face compared to my memories of similar faces is too great. I couldn't even tell you what percentage is too great, just that I hit some point where the features and details I still recognize could belong to any of dozen people I've met in the past. That just doesn't narrow things down far enough and I've misidentified people as other people related to them when I was feeling that degree of uncertainty.

The good news is that there's more to people than just faces, and you can learn to recognize and remember individual features of people's faces and bodies. I've come up with effective ways to examine other types of evidence as a means to identify people that I'm sharing so others can avoid the painful trial-and-error process. So if you are an autistic person, a sufferer of prosopagnosia, or just need help recognizing people, this page may help you attain greater accuracy in identifying people, even years after you've met with them last.

Disclaimer: Please Read First

I am not a therapist or mental health care professional of any kind, simply a woman with high-functioning autism who has worked out effective coping strategies I'd like to share. This advice is not replacement for help from a mental health care professional or therapist.

Listen for Clues

Use your ears. Voices provide a very good way to identify people.
Use your ears. Voices provide a very good way to identify people. | Source

Pay Attention to How People Speak

When you meet someone new or have a chance to interact with someone when you are certain of his or her identity, pay attention to how he or she speaks. Listen for unusual pronunciation of words, accents, or idiosyncratic ways of speaking as well as listening to the sound of his or her voice. In my experience, most voices change a lot less than faces do. So the sound of a person's voice combined with his or her unique mannerisms of speech can be strong, clear signals of identity if your audio memory is fairly good.

If you can identify an accent or mannerism of speaking, compose a sentence in your head that describes it and names the person. For example, I might think to myself upon meeting a woman for which it were true, "Nancy uses an educated vocabulary, speaks quietly, and has a Southern Tennessee accent."

Pay attention to each person's unique body proportions.
Pay attention to each person's unique body proportions. | Source

Look at Height and Limb Proportions

Have you ever been watching a television show or movie only to suddenly wonder who the heck you are watching having a simulated fight scene? For me, it happens most often when the stunt men and women have different limb proportions than the actors they are doing stunts for.

People have surprisingly unique limb proportions. Limb proportions and height seldom change much after adulthood. People get fatter and thinner, but barring unusual occurrences, their limbs almost never change in proportion once they've reached their full growth.

Pay attention to the length of a new person's upper arms compared to lower arms and compared to their upper and lower legs and torso. Make mental note of how far above the knee a person's fingertips are when their arms are hanging loosely at their sides. Then picture what a stick figure of the person would need to look like to accurately represent the proportions of their body and imagine the person's name written under it to help you remember.

If a proportion is unusual, compose a sentence about it in your mind that includes the person's name. For instance, someone might think about me, "Kylyssa's arms are long for her height, but her legs are short for her height."

Making note of how a person stands, moves, and gestures may help you identify him or her in the future.
Making note of how a person stands, moves, and gestures may help you identify him or her in the future. | Source

Notice How People Move, Stand, and Gesture

While this can change over time, in my experience, it changes much less than facial appearance.

If you think about it, there are probably people you've spent a lot of time with who you could recognize from the way they walk, fidget, or gesture from as far away as you could identify their gender. I can spot my sweetie in a crowd of thousands and at a distance if he just walks across my field of vision. He walks on his toes just a tiny bit and it makes his head bob higher up and down than is typical for other people his height when he walks and he's short. We learn those little quirks simply by living with a person, but you can consciously choose to remember those small details if you take a moment to look for them in people you meet. I've found that all it takes for me to remember details about a person's way of movement or posture most of the time is to just notice their distinguishing habits in the first place.

To help you remember the person's way of moving and to connect it with his or her name, compose a sentence in your head that describes the quirk and uses the person's name. Don't say it aloud, just think it and maybe picture the way the person moved as you compose it. An example of such a sentence might be:

"Terrence has a little spring in his step on the left leg but not the right and he tips his head to the right when he's listening to someone."

With practice, you can become better at remembering the distinguishing features and characteristics that will help you identify people with greater accuracy.

How Do I Get These Clues So I Can Make Comparisons in the First Place?

Of course, under ideal circumstances, you will have thought to pay attention to these pieces of personal evidence when you first met a person and try to update them every time you meet. But life is seldom lived under ideal circumstances, so try to be mindful in the future and try to remember what bits of the past you can.

Look online for images or descriptions of people you want to be sure to recognize if you bump into them.
Look online for images or descriptions of people you want to be sure to recognize if you bump into them. | Source

"Cheating" Online

I'm not talking about having an affair, just a little friendly poking around.

If you are lucky enough to know you'll be meeting with someone you know ahead of time, you can and probably should take a few minutes to see if they have any recent photos online.

I'm sincerely not trying to be creepy by saying this, but finding a dating profile for the person can be like hitting the jackpot, even if the profile isn't extremely current. The reason is that profiles on dating sites usually include data like height and build plus they have images, often including full-length photos, from which you may be able to determine things like limb proportions, posture, and eye color.

Save Yourself Some Grief and Don't Rely too Heavily on These Cues

Never rely on any element of appearance that can easily change drastically and quickly or isn't part of the body as a primary means of identification. It's just so easy to make errors that way and I have done so in the past.

Don't rely heavily on any of these elements of appearance:

  • Hair style
  • Hair color
  • Facial hair, including eyebrow shapes
  • Eyeglasses
  • Clothing
  • Accessories

Eyeglasses are not a good way to identify people, no matter how unusual the frames, because they can be replaced with different glasses or contact lenses.
Eyeglasses are not a good way to identify people, no matter how unusual the frames, because they can be replaced with different glasses or contact lenses. | Source

© 2016 Kylyssa Shay

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