Picturing people

Disclaimer: no real names have been used in the writing of this post.

Something that I’ve been open about for a long time (even before my diagnosis) is my almost complete inability to recognise people if they aren’t someone I know well and see regularly. This is something I’ve subsequently discovered is quite common in people with autism, although I don’t know whether it’s directly related.

This inability has led to a number of awkward situations. For instance:

  • introducing myself to someone (as in, ‘I don’t think we’ve met’…) the day after I’d spent an hour with them explaining something in detail
  • completely blanking the person I sat next to in the office because I didn’t recognise him when I saw him in the lift (I was the butt of jokes for months about that one)

It’s got to the stage where I make a joke about my deficiencies in this area before anyone else can. Because it genuinely isn’t something I can help, and I don’t want people to think I’m being rude. On the positive side, I’ve become quite good at making random small talk as I generally have no idea who the people talking to me are and don’t want to inadvertently offend anyone…

It would, however, be nice if I was better at this. I’d love to be able to remember what my grandparents looked like (photos aren’t the same). It’s embarrassing to ask my mother who the man in a photograph is, only to be told it’s my father. (Who, to be fair, is even worse than I am at recognising people so at least he doesn’t get offended about that!)

Instead, I try to remember characteristics. So someone might have long hair; another might always wear cartoon ties. And for people I interact with regularly, my brain somehow makes other associations. I suspect it’s because, as I think in pictures rather than words, it needs a specific non-verbal ‘link’ if I need to mentally refer to someone.

About 80% of the time, this non-verbal link is a visual image. So, for instance, when I think about ‘Jane’, I have an image of a raven in my head.

The remaining 20% of the time I associate a particular emotion, or combination of emotions, with an individual. And in some cases, I get both a visual and emotional association for a person. The visual I associate with ‘Holly’ is an old armchair, so when I think about her I have the image in my head and experience the emotion (safety / warmth) at the same time.

More rarely, and always in combination with a visual and / or emotional association, thinking about someone can trigger a physical sensation. This is almost always an unpleasant sensation (I think there has only been one occasion where that hasn’t been the case). For instance, thinking about ‘Derek’ triggers the sensation of a compass point being dragged across my left arm.

This all may sound a little weird. But it’s just part of my own ‘normal’ – which, as I’m discovering, seems to bear little resemblance sometimes to the experience of others…


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