Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Face blindness in autism and beyond


Swept Up In Pattern by autistic artist Donna Williams We all have had that experience where we know someone but just can’t remember where we know them from. Face Blindness is like this except it happens all the time, even with people you know really really well.

When I was a child I recognised people by the color they wore. I’d get lost constantly in the supermarket, taking hold of some stranger’s clothing only to end up distressed because their voice or walking style then didn’t match the one I expected from the person who was meant to have this color, the one who’d brought me there.

So I learned to find the book section and hang out with the shiny covers and good smells. later, I diversified and learned to associate people with their movement, with their tone of voice, their smell, textures associated with things they wore and most of all, placement. If people were in their ‘proper place’ then I knew who they were.
As an adult people would wave to me in the street and say hi. I’d look away, scared of these strangers. Later a friend would see me in a familiar setting and snub me and I wouldn’t understand what I’d done wrong. It seems I’d ignored them in the street. I didn’t ignore anyone but I seemed occasionally to have complete strangers gawping at me, smiling at me, sometimes waving, some even (scarily) used my name. I never responded to these strangers but I never ignored people I recognised. The problem was there were plenty of people I didn’t recognise.
In my thirties I got tinted lenses that finally allowed me to SEE faces as a whole, not a load of fragments that I couldn’t process as a whole. But after a lifetime of meaning blindness I still couldn’t RECOGNISE people outside of their usual context. Even if they left the room, if someone with a similar beard or glasses or height came in, I’d continue with the new person as though it was the first one, only to be perplexed as to why they didn’t have a clue who I was or what I was on about.

When Chris and I got married he’d leave for work and after eight hours out of the house he’d return. But I couldn’t great him heartily because although I knew he was familiar and knew the name that went with him, I didn’t gel all this with the CONCEPT of him till I heard him speaking, saw him moving and smelled his hair. So I’d treat him as a stranger for the first fifteen minutes to an hour. It was pretty hard if he wanted to hug me as why on earth would I want to hug a stranger, just because I knew his name and knew he lived in my house. An hour later, I’d happily hug him.

Recently I was at the local shops and the shop owner pointed at a woman and little boy waving at me, smiling. I was scared. Why were these strangers seeking my attention. I was asked if I knew them.

‘No’, I replied.

I came out of the shop and the woman said ‘Hi Donna’.

I was even more daunted. I said ‘sorry, I don’t recognise you, who are you?’.

‘You don’t recognise me?’, said the woman, ‘what about him?’ she continued, now pointing to the smiling little boy.

‘No’, I said, ‘I don’t’.

‘It’s Jill’, said the woman, ‘and Harry’.

I lit up.

‘Jill, Harry’, I said, ‘hello there’.

We were five minutes walk from my house. These were my next door neighbours. I see them every week, have for years. I know who they are when they enter or leave their house, but outside of that context I don’t have a clue.

I saw my younger brother the other day. He was to meet my husband and I outside of a particular take away. We arrived, I saw a man sitting on a bench outside the cafe. He was wearing a cap and sat with a posture like that my younger brother used. He said hello, I greeted him. But until I heard his voice, I couldn’t be sure even though I’d last seen him only a few weeks before.

Those who meet with me often don’t know what I’m feeling until I start to relax and express myself. I just don’t emotionally react to their faces. Those who are used to me know, ‘that’s just Donna’. They know I’m a ‘whole’ person, that I like people and feel for them. It’s kind of a good thing to have because the judgmental people tend not to stick around. They decide I’m unfriendly or have snubbed them because I failed to react or was selfish because I came to life only after expressing myself and not upon seeing them. So in a way, they don’t give me a lot of chance and that’s probably not a bad thing after all. Those who take the time to get used to me learn I’m as friendly and interested in people as anyone else (within the limitations of other processing issues).
In my twenties, my ex-shrink watched me playing with an object on a shelf. After exploring it, tapping it and waggling it about I declared ‘its a baby bottle’.

‘You’re agnosic !’ declared the shrink.

‘What does that mean?’, I asked.

‘It means you don’t know what you see’, she replied.

Of course I did. I know my own salt shaker, the cups, the teabags. I just know them by where they are. If they are somewhere else I may not know what they are at all until I move them, tap them, smell them. I now see them as a whole, but its too late for my brain to easily work with visual meaning.

A young boy was in a shop and the owner was getting annoyed because the boy was moving and tapping and smelling the objects. He was meaning blind. The owner felt he was lacking discipline and should look and not touch. Perhaps he would have said the same to the parent of a blind child.

A famous woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, Temple Grandin, has stated ‘autistics think in pictures’ and gone so far as to say all animals do too (featuring in documentaries as ‘The Woman Who Thinks Like A Cow’). Yet we’re not all in some nice tidy neat little category of people with a shared diagnosis of ‘being on the autistic spectrum’.

The meaning blind, autistic and non-autistic alike, may not think in pictures. Their world may be made of emotional responses, movement, textures, smells and the acoustics made when tapping things. She has portrayed those who don’t think in pictures, as thinking in words. But had she experienced my thoughts, seen my dreams she’d find neither. They are mosaics, full of feeling and movement and vague impressionist experiences. They have no words and the communication is simply sensed, known. My dreams are the dreams of a blind woman with seeing eyes. Can someone who can see fluently with meaning imagine the world of someone who cannot? Perhaps no more than the hearing can imagine the world of the deaf. Yet I am also diagnosed autistic, part of the wide diversity of that world, yet sharing in common experiences with the wider world of moments of face blindeness.

The neighbour now waves and smiles, but adds ‘Donna, it’s Jill’.

Then I wave back.


… Donna Williams *)


posted under Autism, Donna Williams