At kindergarten, everyone is a “friend”. The teachers always use the word ‘friend’ in relations between the children. From the moment I first tuned into this word choice, I knew it was purposefully intended to instill kindness and friendship among all the students. A positive approach.
Each day, at the end of class, when I pick my son up from school, he waves goodbye to his classmates and yells out, “Goodbye Friends!” In return, the children all shout out their personalized goodbyes to my son, using his name. Not reciprocally, my son does not call the other students by name. As much as I try to assist him with this task, I too, do not know all their names. I have made the effort to try and learn but, even I have trouble correlating the actual live faces with the photo of the kindergarten class.
My son doesn’t correct me. Because he can’t. What drew my attention to this issue again was something that happened last Friday. Tootles’ tutor sent me a photo of him playing in the classroom with another student.
The original photo had the full face of the other student in it. Before I received the picture, when I picked him up from school, she gave me a report about how proud she was that Tootles played with this boy throughout the day. They did puzzles together and talked. They sat together and were basically ‘best friends’ for the day. I was delighted, of course.
The picture came as a text on my phone. When I got it, I showed it to him and asked, “Who is that in the picture?” He looked. He looked at me and asked back, “Who is it?” Nice try kid. “No,” I responded, “You tell me. Who is that boy in the picture?” “Tootles,” he responded. “No, I said, again, “Not you. The other boy. Who is that?” He shot out a few random names. They were pure guesses. I ended up telling him.
This inability is in contrast to something else he does. He will see some random person in the mall or on TV and become completely enamored. He will point to them, stare, get right up in their personal space and, turning to me, say, loudly, “Who’s that?” instead of asking them their names and introducing himself. Awkward…
So what’s a mother to do? I Googled “face recognition” and that brought me to the story that aired on last Sunday’s episode of 60 Minutes about face blindness or prosopagnosia, as it is called. You can watch it here. (And it is really interesting).
Face blindness is just that. An impairment in the ability to recognize faces. Apparently, the research into the issue is just beginning. Face blindness can be acquired (through traumatic or other injuries – in one case brain tumor removal may have removed or damaged the brain at the segment used to process faces) or developmental. There is research being conducted you can read about here.
Because so little is known, there is no known cause or cure. Anatomically, facial recognition happens at the fusiform gyrus in the brain. The fusiform gyrus is found on the underside of the temporal lobe. My son’s seizure activity, when documented was located in the temporal lobe. But despite the neurological correlation in our case, I also found a old study from 1999 that indicates that facial recognition is something that can be a learned skill rather than an innate function of the human brain. According to the study, the brain exhibits increased neural activity at the fusiform gyrus for a specially created object (greebles) when the person has been trained to recognize that new object. So, being a layperson, I don’t see a connection there to how much that could really help someone if the portion of the brain that is active is already existing in a damaged state unless the brain is able to repair itself through recognition training.
In any event, I don’t know what is causing my son to have recognition issues with the face of his peers. The strange thing is that he does not appear to have this problem with adults. He learns the names of new tutors and masters these quickly. He recognizes old tutors he has not seen in a while. But with kindergarten peers, he does not connect. Maybe it is behavioral and he sees no social utility to his peers because they have no perceptible control or reward associated with them in his mind.
The ABA tutors have come up with a plan. They photographed his classroom tables and placed them on a large posterboard. With it they created laminated, head shot photos of each child in his class from the class photo. They play a game where they let Tootles choose a classroom table to place his own photo. Then, they randomly put down two or three classmate photos at the table and require him to say hi to his friends by name. This is now actively reinforced in class. He must speak to his classmates by name. He must say goodbye to five friends by name. We are hoping this new emphasis will make an impact.
How about your child? Does he or she have trouble recognizing peers? How are you trying to remedy this? Clearly, this would be a major piece of foundation toward healthy social interaction. Without it, you cannot establish a relationship because you will not associate that “person” with memories of doing things together.
If you are interested in finding out how good you are at recognizing famous faces, you can test your own recognition here. http://www.faceblind.org/facetests/index.php I scored an 82 percent, slightly under average. If you miss more than half, you may have face recognition problems.
“What is your fortune, my pretty maid?” “My face is my fortune, Sir,” she said.