Some autistic children suffer from face blindness, whereby they are unable to recognise people by their faces.
About one in every 160 children has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), as per the World Health Organisation (WHO). In India alone, one in 68 children is reportedly diagnosed with ASD, and yet not many people are aware of the mental condition.
For the uninitiated, autism is a serious developmental disorder that impacts the nervous system and affects one’s cognitive, emotional and physical health. It results in challenges associated with social skills and communication, both speech and non-verbal. Autism has many sub-types, with each autistic person having his or her unique strengths and challenges.
Even those who know of autism may feel challenged to fully comprehend the behavioural tendencies of those on the spectrum. A parent based in United Kingdom, Jon Roberts, for instance, recently took to social media to ask the meaning of a certain trait of his autistic child. Roberts’ daughter Kya was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Ever since, the proud father has been researching ASD, while undertaking awareness initiatives.
In the social-media post, Roberts talked about how his “daughter loves school and can name all her friends and teachers in a photo but if she sees them in a park or a shop she blanks them as if she has never met them before.”
Turns out, a lot of autistic children also have a hard time recognising faces out of context. Corroborating the same, netizens shared anecdotes of how autistic children fail to acknowledge known people with a changed setting. “My daughter does this, she has 1 special friend who she adores at nursery, yet she saw the same girl in Sainsbury’s and it was like she didn’t know her, no response at all. I think she associates people with places, out of those places she doesn’t recognise them,” wrote another social-media user.
When Express Parenting got in touch with child psychologist Dr Dharendra Kumar, to understand what this particular behaviour meant, he said, “It is not the same for all autistic children. There may be multiple perspectives on why some autistic children find it difficult to recognise faces. Firstly, when one meets a person in a particular context, one can automatically recognise them, and that’s true even for non-autistic people. If we are trying to recall something from the past, for instance, we give ourselves cues to remember it.”
How does the setting in which an autistic child meets a person affect his or her ability to recognise them? Dr Kumar explained, “It is the setting which gives an individual additional cues, helping them relate to the person associated with it. Recognition and recall becomes better when we get an additional cue. And it is the same for autistic children. Autistic children cannot generalise. Their behaviour is specific to the setting in which they have learnt it in the first place. If you teach them a particular behaviour at home, they will do it at home only and might not respond in a similar way outside.”
Secondly, an autistic child may not feel like interacting with a person outside a context. “For instance, the child may have a lot of classmates but he or she may not be friends with some of them. In that case, they may not feel the need to interact with them outside a classroom. Autistic children experience difficulties in socialising and communicating. So, they may not interact with people sometimes even if they know them,” added Dr Kumar.
How to help an autistic child recognise faces
Talk to the child: A simple way of helping an autistic child recognise faces is by talking to them about identifying people through their characteristics—their height, movement, clothes, to name a few.
Show pictures of people: One can frequently show the autistic child pictures of people and help them identify by name and relation.
Play interactive games: Parents can try innovative ways of helping a child recognise faces. One can make cards with the faces of people on them, and make the child refer to these cards. Various games can also be played with them like memory tests, matching tests or spot-the-difference activities.