Face Blindness (Prosopagnosia) Is Common in Autism

Imagine being unable to recognize your own mother's face. You may know your mother's voice, her smell, her size and shape, and yet not recognize her face.

Puzzle made from faces, half completed
Dimitri Otis / Getty Images

This is face blindness, or prosopagnosia, a disorder that may be congenital or caused by brain injury. While it can occur in many people who are not autistic, it is quite common among people with autism.

Whether you call it prosopagnosia, facial agnosia, or face blindness, the disorder may be mild (inability to remember familiar faces) or severe (inability to recognize a face as being different from an object).

Prosopagnosia Definition

According to the National Institutes for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, "Prosopagnosia is not related to memory dysfunction, memory loss, impaired vision, or learning disabilities. Prosopagnosia is thought to be the result of abnormalities, damage, or impairment in the right fusiform gyrus, a fold in the brain that appears to coordinate the neural systems that control facial perception and memory. Congenital prosopagnosia appears to run in families, which makes it likely to be the result of a genetic mutation or deletion."

While face blindness is not a "core symptom" of autism, it is not uncommon for autistic people. In some cases, face blindness may be at the root of the apparent lack of empathy or very real difficulties with non-verbal communication. How can you read a face when you can't distinguish a face from an object, or recognize the person speaking to you?

While face blindness may be an issue for your loved one with autism, it is easy to confuse face blindness with typical autistic symptoms. For example, many children with autism fail to respond to non-verbal cues such as smiles, frowns, or other facial "language" – even though they are able to recognize the face they are looking at. Their lack of response may relate to social communication deficits rather than to prosopagnosia.

Can they recognize the face of a favorite character on television or a photograph of a relative with no auditory clues? If so, they are recognizing a face – and most likely are not suffering from face blindness.

What to Do and How to Cope

There is no cure for face blindness. Children with face blindness can be taught some compensatory techniques such as listening for emotional meaning or using mnemonic devices to remember names without necessarily recognizing faces. Before beginning such training, however, it's important to distinguish face blindness from other autistic symptoms that can have similar appearances, such as difficulties with eye contact.

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  1. NINDS Prosopagnosia Information Page. February 14, 2007.

Additional Reading
  • NINDS Prosopagnosia Information Page. February 14, 2007.
  • Barton JJ, Cherkasova MV, Hefter R, Cox TA, O'Connor M, Manoach DS. "Are Patients With Social Developmental Disorders Prosopagnosic? Perceptual Heterogeneity in the Asperger and Socio-Emotional Processing Disorders."Brain. 2004 Aug;127(Pt 8):1706-16.
  • McConachie H. "Relation Between Asperger Syndrome and Prosopagnosia." Dev Med Child Neurol. 1995 Jun;37(6):563-4.