Who’s That?

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.  

Unknown author.


About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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28 Responses to Who’s That?

  1. C... says:

    Very interesting discovery. My son apparently has no trouble with this as he knows all his friends names and can remember tons of characters from any games he plays. It’s amazing how different kids can be and what neurological impacts they deal with that are still part of the spectrum or related.

    • solodialogue says:

      Thanks for sharing, Claudia. I just assumed that all children with ASD had this difficulty. Apparently, that is not necessarily true. It’s a good wake up call. Yet that leaves me wondering, neurological or behavioral or both, all the more…

  2. Lisa says:

    Tate has fairly good face recognition. When presented with pictures of his “friends”, he can and does accurately label them. However, if his teacher tells me he played a game with Dallas, and later I ask who he played with, I have to prompt A LOT to get the answer. In his case, it just isn’t important to remember the social interaction…

    BTW, our school uses “friends”, too…

    • solodialogue says:

      Interesting that he responds to the pictures rather than the “memory” of the person. Do you see what I mean? Because Tootles can memorize a photo, as a photo, but when it comes to the “in real life” person, he’s blank. Are they learning the object (the piece of paper with a pattern) or the person who we – you and I associate with the image?

  3. Mom2MissK says:

    LOL! Little Miss does the exact. same. thing. when she sees a stranger with some object of her desire! I am constantly bombarded with the question “what he name?” when we are out and about. As always, I re-direct and try to get her to ask the person their name (if they seem like a safe person).

    LM also has problems recalling names. She’s pretty good now with a few of the classmates that we have seen outside of the classroom (I can’t emphasize the importance of 1:1 play dates — even if they are hard to arrange!). Many of the others still cause her to draw a blank — especially when it comes to the half dozen little blond girls in LM’s class…. man, they confuse me too!

    And then there are some who just seem to be a muddle in her head no matter how hard we try — like two neighbor boys and a third friend who comes over to play from time to time — they are all simply called “Liam.”

    My advice is to keep up with the flash cards, schedule a few 1:1 play dates, and see if you can get some pictures for T to look at when he’s at home — we have school pics of some of LM’s closer playmates on the fridge as a reminder (those magnets from Stickygram are awesome for the job!)

    • solodialogue says:

      Can you see LM and Tootles out together? They would be quite the curious pair about others, asking the two of us, the names of people… That paints such a cute/funny picture to me!

      I can see how important playdates are and through ABA we have been talking about the logistics of it all. You see, we live in the isolated country. Tootles school friends are in the suburbs of the City over 30 miles away. The ABA staff wants to control the environment. So we are having difficulty arranging them. He has had a couple with a boy he has known since he was 1 year old but he needs so much more. I like the magnets on the fridge as a reminder. I just don’t want them to become “objects” with names rather than reference images for the real deal, if you know what I mean…

  4. Melissa says:

    My daughter did and does similar things… Although, they’ve worked very hard in school and we’ve worked at home on this too. They do a lot of activities at school to incorporate classmate names. Such as “Who’s in school today? (take a name/picture off the board and give it to that classmate incorporating teachers as well) Before she spoke, we used the class picture and had her point receptively with the SD “Where’s ____?”. We also used family and friend pictures outside of school for action identification and eventually the program got expanded for names as well… so instead of (for instance) sliding or running, it would be Jia’s sliding or Mattie’s running…

    It took a while. And she more often than not still shouts out “hi” or “hi boy” or needs to be prompted to say “hi” or “bye”. But sometimes with her I think it’s also knowing the appropriate time as much as the appropriate whom.

    • solodialogue says:

      I like your programs too! They do incorporate good language, verbs, and associations in a way that will help facilitate transferring the concept of people from objects. Yet, I still think that our kids have to cross this bridge as a self-realization – from object with a name to reference image for a real, life human being. That really is kind of a difficult concept if you think about it. I’m hoping our attempts will show some productive results shortly.

      • Melissa says:

        Also true. before we started using pictures there was a preliminary program for matching objects object to object, object to picture, picture to object, then picture to picture. It seems really simple, but as you said, you need to be able to discriminate. We mostly started using familiar (home) people, while at school they worked more on school… Eventually crossing boundaries. Because her receptive language made itself known waaaaay before her expressive language and to this day at times when there are no words forthcoming, she will still point or use pictures. I believe there are still portions of her evaluations which are done that way as well…

      • solodialogue says:

        You have some excellent programs going on. It sounds like she is making good progress and it’s wonderful that the evaluations are taking the lack of expressive language into account. Many of the tests that my son took did not account for his lack of expressive language early on, resulting in ridiculously low scores.

      • Melissa says:

        We’ve had some very good therapists who I really attribute a lot of her having good programs to. She’s made a lot of progress, but there is a lot of dichotomy between how she presents/what she understands/and how she tests. And a lot of that is because, as it is explained to me, they test for very specific things and can’t really change the verbiage of the testing around very much. AND she is being compared to typical peers. Who also make progress, that frankly I don’t think parents even realize. So this last round of testing (and I haven’t even gotten it all back yet) was somewhat of a kick in the teeth, though I see how far she’s progressed in nearly 3 years of therapies. You know?

      • solodialogue says:

        Ah. That sounds more like our testing. I always get the “he presents” better than he actually tests. And I would agree – the NT parents often don’t get how much progress their kids make – it’s taken for granted. We don’t have that luxury. And yeah, my teeth have been kicked too, but we just keep going because thats what we do.

  5. Lana Rush says:

    I’ve made picture books with our family’s faces. We have flashcards of family members so we can play matching/concentration type games. Family pictures are in a special category on her iTouch. I even have huge poster size photos of each member of our immediate family hanging on a photo wire in Lily’s room. We’re constantly looking at these and asking the Bird, “Where’s _____?” and she then points to the person. We also have photos of all therapists. We’ve now added photos of her classmates to the mix and she seems to do fine. But if I say, “Go give ____ a high five”, that’s where we seem to have a little bit of disconnect.
    Have you seen the app PhotoMatch Kids HD? You can create customized memory games using your own photos. Maybe you could put in pictures of school friends? Tootles might like it…

    • solodialogue says:

      Wow, Lana, you are a rock star at this concept! But I’m seeing the same issue with you too. When you go from “paper” friends, or images to the real “person”, our kids get lost. I don’t really get why and this leads me back to whether it is neurological or behavioral. I will try the PhotoMatch Kids though. It isn’t quite paper… maybe it will help transition from paper to reality. I’ll let you know!

  6. Flannery says:

    Connor seems to have problems remembering his friends names too, but I know he recognizes faces. Maybe there’s just too many of them for him to commit their names to memory.

    Oh, I got 100% on that face recognition test. Apparently I would immediately recognize Ben Stiller or George Bush, and that’s a real relief. I’d hate to think I was having lunch next to Dubbya and didn’t know it.

    • solodialogue says:

      I did not recognize Gandhi or Tony Blair or – get this – Jerry Seinfeld!! I am like the biggest Seinfeld fan and I didn’t get his face! Weird, that. But sadly, I recognized everyone else… And you – all hob-nobbing with Flat Flan for all that time, you probably know all these peeps irl, so obviously, you’d get 100%. Show off. 😉

  7. kcunning says:

    If it’s any comfort, if he recognizes you, he doesn’t have prosopagnosia. There was a Radio Lab a while back, that explored a young man who has it, and he couldn’t recognize his girlfriend.

    As for your son, it may come with time. His social skills are still budding, and kindergarten is really just a particle generator, where kids run into each other for four to eight hours a day. Jake didn’t start talking about certain children until he was in the first grade, at the earliest.

    • solodialogue says:

      I had to laugh at the particle generator comment! Pretty accurate. My kid definitely knows his mama’s face. Which brings me great joy. Thanks for sharing about Jake. I love hearing about him because it gives me perspective. 🙂

  8. Lizbeth says:

    Sorry I’m late for the party–I’m having major school issues. OK, what Alex does is different. He can choose to remember people—but only if he wants to or if they are interesting to him. If not then he simply puts them out of his mind. He’s always been like that. For the most part, he does not know names because other “friends” are not interesting to him. The end.

    Where we struggle is with Alex recognizing emotions within himself and other people–on their faces. He simply cannot “read” a persons emotional state via their face or tone of voice. He truly does not see or hear it. That is a whole other post……

    • solodialogue says:

      I don’t think Alex is all that different, really. Tootles remembers the names of adults. He doesn’t tell me whether he finds his peers interesting but his actions indicate otherwise. So they might be more alike on that one. With Toots, he does recognize emotions on faces of people but often is more interested in watching a wheel spin than attending to the emotions that he sees. Whether that is because it’s overwhelming or scary or just Spock-like, I don’t know yet. Maybe Alex can ‘read’ it but is unable to “go there” yet because it is too overwhelming and it’s easier to pretend he doesn’t see or hear it… Alex is super smart and just maybe it’s a coping mechanism to block it for now?

  9. jentroester says:

    If I were to show K a picture, I think she would know who it was, but if I ask her a question like, what are the other 2 kid’s names in your social group, she has no clue. I think she more relies on visual prompts, maybe? But doesn’t seem to have a facial recognition issue. I have heard of this before, though. When K was younger she had a more difficult time telling me who anyone was, though, so some of it might be age. Ben doesn’t even seem to know the names of every kid in his preschool class…and he’s been with them for 2 yrs! HA!

    • solodialogue says:

      It’s good to know that both K and Ben are not expert recognizers as it also gives me perspective. It is interesting how when you change up the question format, she loses the message. That happens with Tootles too. I ask “What do you want to eat?” He will say “Graham crackers or…” and trail off. If I follow with “Or what?” he’s lost. I have to repeat, “What do you want to eat?” again to get the answer.

  10. I have this condition slightly. I have a hard time remembering faces. Always have. I remember hair length, color, body shape, and clothes, sometimes eye color. If I see the person over a long time span, I do not recognize them. I have a hard time recognizing myself in photographs, and it seems like in every photo I am someone else. Great article. Your son is so lovely. ~ Your blogging buddy Sam 🙂

    • solodialogue says:

      Interesting that you too feel you have some of this. I spoke to another adult female on FB who discussed with me the details of how she recalls faces through much the same method as you with the hair, body shape clothes. She places them in a context like “church” and when she sees them outside of that context, it is confusing to her. I can understand that. It was a really interesting article. Thank you for your kind words about my little boy! 🙂

  11. Katie says:

    I’m fascinated by this. I got a 100% on the face recognition, though it took me a second to get Margaret Thatcher. I realized it was probably her because I had just seen Tony Blair and because the survey asked us if we were in either the US/Canada or UK, so I thought about famous Brits. I’ve always had a very strong visual acuity and could always find my way around (driving or walking a new city on vacation, for example) by visual cues – building, signs, etc. I don’t know much about Autism, though I’ve read about the brain and am intrigued by how we pick up patterns, recognize differences in these patterns (such as the difference between one face versus another) and then store that information as a new set of patterns. In the book “On Intelligence,” the author talks about people staring when they see something new in an unlikely place (such as, a person with only one eye or maybe some sort of unusual deformity) because their brain is trying to process the new set of information out of an old pattern. I guess people process patterns in different ways. Hmmm.

    • solodialogue says:

      First, thank you for reading. I too, found this subject fascinating. You sound like one of the people closer to the opposite end where you recognize more than average! The whole subject seemed to help us consider that maybe someone is not snubbing us or ignoring us but can have difficulty recognizing people. The book you spoke of sounds interesting – I will have to check it out!

  12. eof737 says:

    I was listening/reading about this on npr.org…. Fascinating topic. 🙂

  13. Pingback: Back and Over the Bridge. | Solodialogue

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