Faces and being important


“Obviously it’s not important to you, else you’d have remembered it”…Uh yeah that’s not how it works.

And I had thoughts that were longer than my normal length tumblr posts, so I thought I’d return to bloggy-land. I like tumblr for obtaining content, but not as much for creating it.


So, in undergrad, we did this weeklong service trip. We got to go do some manual labor, clean up some houses, play in the mountains. It was a group of maybe 20 people. We met a couple times, several weeks apart. Before every meeting, I would study their faces on facebook to try and match them. I’m almost positive I spent more time trying to learn their faces than anyone else in the group. I’ve learned, generally, that most people don’t study faces. I also did give my general face disclaimer–bad with faces, I don’t recognize my boyfriend when he shaves, etc.

Like seriously, the mountains were beautiful. And there were lots of trains, so I was pretty happy. Since I’m a fan of trains.

At the end of the week, people went around and said best and worst things about the weekend. One of the girls said the worst thing was that I didn’t care enough about them to learn their names. Other people seconded that. I’m pretty sure I spent more time trying to learn names than anyone else on the trip. But my brain does not like to learn faces.

Sometimes I forget my mother’s face. Often I forget my husband’s face. I know this is a regular problem that I face.

My grad school friends don’t really mind. When I met them for the first time, I mentioned it. I started grad school with my brand new (secret) autism semi-diagnosis and general weird-brain-awareness (although I have always known that I can’t recognize faces) and I would mention when I met them that I was extremely bad at recognizing faces. My grad school friends–science nerds–after 4 years of knowing them I can’t begin to tell you how much of nerds they are–would just excitedly ask “oh is that the face recognizing thing?” and then talk excitedly about prosopognasia. One person even asked me if I had brain scans (and what they looked like). Because brains are cool and differences in them are useful (in learning how they work). I like scientists.

*Darn. I was hoping it would embed visually. But it doesn’t seem to be doing that.


Fear and anger

One of the things I am most afraid of is making other people upset or angry. This tends to be a problem. When other people are angry, even if I know it is not at me, I am afraid. Even if it is something completely unrelated to me. If my sister is mad at my parents for not letting her go out somewhere with her friends, I am afraid.

The more tired or stressed I become, the less capable I am of distinguishing between actual threats and perceived ones. So things that would just make me minorly uncomfortable, like someone complaining about how their boss made them work over the weekend, or even things that on a good day wouldn’t upset me at all, like complaining about failed experiments, will make me afraid. And then I want to run and hide.

But of course, I can’t hide under my desk at work.

For several reasons.

Partially, the floor is disgusting.
Also, I know that if people saw me hiding, then they would be concerned and ask if I was ok. And that would lead to more human interaction when I do not want it.

When I am especially afraid, all questions are a threat.

I used to tell my parents to “Stop yelling” when they were saying things, without even a raised voice, when I knew that there was something wrong, maybe I was in trouble or a sister was in trouble. There’s something I don’t quite have the word for still. It isn’t yelling, because it doesn’t require a raised voice. It’s a-something-is-wrong voice and it makes me afraid, even though I know I should be safe.

I don’t know why I have this fear. I am not afraid of my parents. They did not unfairly punish me. Usually, they were pretty explicit about what I had done wrong and why it was not ok and what was going to happen as a result. The reasons were pretty explicit reasons, usually safety related or you-aren’t-allowed-to-hit-your-sister related. And the results were usually pretty reasonable punishments like apologizing to my sisters or going to my room to calm down or extra chores to make up for creating an unreasonable mess. There is no clear reason why I should have this fear of conflict.

I think part of the reason I am afraid is because I am never sure WHAT is wrong. Is it anger or tiredness or frustration? Even with boyfriend, even with my family, I can’t pick up on tired versus angry. It makes behavior unpredictable.

And lack of predictability is frightening.

And if I can’t handle the possibility that someone I know and trust and love might be upset, then when it is someone I don’t know, it can be especially terrifying. This is one reason why I try to stay away from all the activism and issues and current events and internet things that are always going on. Because I can’t handle them and they make me want to hide.

And that is maybe ok, to only float around the edges and contribute my personal stories. To share bits of happiness and some struggles. I should be good at floating around the edges by now. I’ve done it my whole life.

Because it is maybe ok to prioritize being safe and feeling safe.

You look like a stick figure to me (when I think about you in my brain)

I’ve talked a lot about how absolutely horrible I am at facial recognition and people-recognition in general.

I was “meeting” someone today at work/in-class (AKA someone I have talked to before in class but didn’t really know). But after a conversation about 23 and me and genotyping ourselves and understanding risk alleles and genome information with two boys I hadn’t gotten around to recognizing, I realized I should probably figure out their names. (It also was week 7 of the not-particularly-large class we have together. So I asked for their names (and they thought I was named Georgia, so it was all good, because they didn’t know my name, other).

I gave them my general spiel about being horrible at faces, so that they wouldn’t get upset if I didn’t recognize their names. And then one of them made a joke about how that would be difficult, since they were both Asian.

To me, they looked very different, of course. One of them had glasses. One of them had flat hair and one of them had spiky hair. Both of them did have black hair, admittedly. So I pointed this out. And they were amused by me pointing out the difference. And I was amused by how they thought they looked similar because they clearly looked different to me.

See, they look nothing alike.

And then there was a brief discussion with other people about how annoying it is when people say people look the same just because they are Asian, which was one which I wasn’t really contributing to, because of stuff. And which also isn’t completely relevant anymore to what I am writing about. 
The relevant take-away from this conversation (besides I made some cool new friends), is that my conceptualization of faces and people is about as detailed as a stick figure can be. Which is exceptionally convenient for this post since that is about the same level as my drawing skills.
There are a few traits that I can pick up on and use to initially identify people.
Height, hair length, color and texture, if you wear glasses. As you can probably tell, most of this is based on your hair. Hair is very important to me. (Sometime I can pick up skin color, but to a much lesser extent than many people think seems reasonable.*)That is what I have to go on, unless you have some other striking physical characteristic, like a Harry Potter scar on your face. Sometimes, I can go with general body structure and build, but that is a lot more inconsistent and unreliable for me, so I tend not to worry about that too much.
And height is really only useful if you are on one end or the other of the spectrum. Otherwise, it isn’t something I really notice. And even then, I might not notice. I did ask one of my TAs if they were the tall one or the short one once (in my defense, it was very late at night and I was mostly asleep and sitting in this extremely comfortable chair.) but apparently there is a large height difference between 5’9 and 6’4 and I should be able to tell that when only one of the two people is there…
That is why I have so much trouble with boys. In general, boys have less variation in hair. Also, because their hair is often shorter than girls, it is a lot harder to tell the different textures from it. Colors also seem to be less distinct in shorter hair than in longer hair, so there seems to be less shades of color to choose from.  Also, depending on how frequently they cut their hair, the length can fluctuate a lot.
Although I suppose maybe I should say men, since some of these people are balding. Which is generally something that happens to adult men.

But, conveniently for me, sometimes there is also this convenient thing called facial hair**, which it is now possible for (some) of my peers to obtain. This can be both helpful and horrible in individual people determination. It definitely gives a lot more options for determining faces. BUT often, it quickly disappears (and sometimes, even quickly appears, now that people are getting older). And then you have a whole new face to learn, and that can be an issue.
I’ve always been better at identifying girls. [Although I will have to say there is one exception here. Girls with straight, extremely blond hair. I have never in my life been able to differentiate between them. They all look essentially identical to me, which has been problematic as I have encountered a lot of them who apparently do not all look the same and do like when you know who they are (especially when you are on a week-long school trip with two of them) and get upset when you get their names wrong.*** ] Generally, since girls have longer hair, there are more length variations. It is also possible to observe the different textures. There also seems to be more varieties of colors. (Also, I just find girls less threatening to talk to, although I am getting better at this one.)
Also, hairstyles are really tricky to differentiate on stick figures, but there are definitely more than I have shown here. It is also nice because it is a lot easier to tell curly from wavy from straight hair and such with long hair, and so that makes my life easier.
And then sometimes people dye their hair pink and blue, like my sister did once, and then it is extremely easy to recognize them.
As I get to know you over time, of course, I analyze you and your movement. I learn patterns and other ways to recognize you. The way you walk, the way your voice sounds. Common clothes that you wear. I may even be able to recognize you out of context, or figure you out if something about you changes. Not always, as I still will forget boyfriend or my mom or my sisters and things like that, but much less frequently.
But still, even when I picture boyfriend in my head, I have a stick figure’s worth of information about him. I know he has brown short hair and is tall. I have a lot of his movements and patterns and voices that go into my idea of people when I think of them. But when I think of people in my head, I do not think of their faces. 
It’s one of the reasons I love books so much. They name the characters. Sure, they give descriptions, but you can tag the characters as names with traits. You don’t need to remember the face, because they will give you the name. You can spend your time filling the character with ideas and thoughts and backstory and context instead. When I read, I see the story happening. But I don’t need to see the faces. I can just see the people and the landscape and the words, and it is beautiful.
* For me, skin color is a trait close to the usefulness of height. I will be able to pick up very broad sections, but nothing extremely specific. There are a few extremely broad categories that I can pick up on, but a lot of people are intermediate shades and so it is a lot less useful. It is also hard to find a good metaphor to describe it without slipping into possibly offensive wording, so I’ve hidden it down here in the footnotes. 
**Although I have personal aesthetic objections to a large portion of people who have facial hair, it really is none of my business what they look like and can be useful, so I really shouldn’t complain. And I probably wouldn’t if boyfriend didn’t occasionally attempt to also grow facial hair, which is an endeavor I am opposed to.
***Which I do understand. It is probably confusing when you spend a whole week with someone and they basically think two different people who haven’t really met before are the same person.

Facial expressions

I am horrible at consciously controlling my facial expressions.

Is this an autistic thing?

There are exactly two faces I can consciously make.

One is a smile. I’ve had a lot of practice. My mom made me practice in a mirror. I can pretty reliably manage a passable smile at any given point.

The other is sort of a “Mckayla is not impressed” face (see below for reference, if you are unaware) except with one eyebrow raised.* It is a good one. It usually wins in the silly face making contest. I am not exactly sure what it conveys to people, but I generally use it when people say things that sound stupid/odd/confusing. Or to win staring contests.

But other than this, I can’t really control my face. 
If I try to glare at someone (without actually being mad at them), or try to make a sad face, or try to make any other face, it generally just turns into a confused face. 
Now, I apparently have an amazingly expressive face, and people can read things from it all the time with great ease. I just can’t really control these expressions.
*Raising one eyebrow: another thing I practiced a lot. Although I can only raise my left eyebrow independently. For some reason, I can’t raise just my right eyebrow.

Rules, Rules, Rules

The best post I’ve read on rules was by Musings of an Aspie. It is far more eloquent than what I am going to say here. (But it isn’t completely how my rules work, since, after all, I didn’t write it.) But you should definitely read hers first if you haven’t, because it is absolutely brilliant.


I like rules.

I stick to rules.

I have them for a lot of situations.

For things I do everyday, all the time, not as much.

When I talk to my family, I don’t worry as much about the rules. (Only a few rules then apply.) The rules for talking to my family are so everyday normal ones (when I am home regularly) that I don’t have to think about them.

Mostly they are manners.
Eat with your mouth closed.
Don’t put your elbows on the table.

And posture.
(My mother is very into that.)
Shoulders back, head up.
Walk with purpose.

(Learning to walk with purpose is useful. People seldom ask you where you are going when you walk with purpose.)

I assume most people are taught a lot of these rules.

When I talk to a stranger, there are a lot of rules.

Eye contact. Maintain eye contact. But not consistently. About 80% of the time. (I have a lot of practice in this so I usually only have to remind myself a couple of times. Although, I generally just stare at their face in general.)
Be polite (what a lovely, vague rule).
Shake hands when you first meet.
Stand still.
Don’t talk about controversial topics.
Say hello and stand up when someone new walks into a room.
Direct the conversation back to them.
Ask questions.
(People like talking about themselves. Conversations are a game.)

Remember names
(This rule is impossible. Well, not quite, but I can never remember the faces that go along with the names.)


I was asked if I ran my life by rules, principles, or understanding. And to me this seemed an incomplete question.

My understanding of you is built up of … well, not quite rules. But of things very similar to rules.

More like observations.

It would be more accurate, maybe, to say that for me, life is more like science.

I observe.
I look at all my observations.
I make them into hypotheses and observe some more to test them.

Starting specifically.
I gather up observations.
After staying up until 4 am, your voice is lower than normal.
When you tell me you worked all night and only got two hours of sleep, your voice is lower than normal.
When you are talking to me before you fall asleep in the middle of a sentence, your voice is lower.

Eventually, I gather a hypothesis. When you are tired, your voice is lower than normal.

I test it out over time.
It seems to hold consistent.

Sometimes they are things I can generalize to people in general.

Raised voice means angry.
Laughter is good.

Maybe this is why I took to science so well. I’ve been using the scientific method my whole life.

In orientation for my Ph.D program, we discussed the scientific method.

It seems simple.
It is simple.
It’s just not easy.

And that’s very true.

My parents seemed to know that this is how my mind works (generally). They gave me rules for things to do, but most importantly, they explained the WHY of the rule. Knowing the WHY of the rule helped apply it to the situations it was relevant.  And most importantly, the situations where the rule WAS NOT relevant.

When the why WASN’T explained, things happened that weren’t supposed to. Or were just utterly useless.

Look behind you before you change lanes. (So I looked directly behind to the back of the car. Not to the blind spot. Because they said look behind you. And I thought it was silly, but it was a RULE of driving, and I certainly didn’t know everything.)

But once the WHY was explained, then I actually checked for oncoming cars. It didn’t just give me situations to apply the rules, it made them work better.

Knowing the whys of rules makes the world a less confusing place. Knowing the whys makes rules easier to remember. But knowing the whys is usually something I can’t figure out myself (especially social-wise). And this is where parents come in, where friends come in, where cousins come in, where boyfriend comes in. Because sometimes they can explain the whys.


I wrote poems in college sometimes. I’ve been looking back at them recently, since my life is in boxes which I have to move to suitcases soon. Some of them are interesting. They are mostly from freshman year, before I had even really thought I might be autistic (although I had already known for a long time that I might not work in quite the same way as everyone).

Anyway, here’s one of them. I think it’s interesting to look at now, with the things I know about how my brain works now.
numbers have feelings and ideas and tastes
numbers have differences and sums and some are good and some are bad
some are nice and some are not
some are happy and some are just there
and very precise
(but not people)
faces all disappear the moment I close my eyes
faces all have hidden languages
faces all whisper to everyone else secrets I never will know
faces all have people behind them a thing I am prone to forget
words are quite nice
words all sound different
words can be precise
words can be vague
words can be many things
words mostly make sense
(not as nice as numbers but better than people)
voices have differences
voices can be yes or no or maybe
voices mean different things for different ones more secrets I will never know
voices can be high or low or quiet or loud or happy or sad or bored or mad but I can never tell
I wish that people all had maps
And explanations
And google search for details when you don’t understand
And you could figure out what and why and when
I wish that you could pause

While you gather the other information

Conversations are like Jane Austin novels

Talking in groups is like a Jane Austen Novel. The poorly punctuated ones. Where there are words words words and you have to match each one to the character and figure out the difference between dialogue and description because the editor (at least of my edition) didn’t believe in full quotation marks.

You have to follow all the words at once and they are mixed in with everything going on.

You have to fit all the words to the people.

It’s a struggle.

Especially because you don’t get the helpful he said, she saids that are in the book. And remember, names are not too helpful, because even if I was introduced to people at the beginning of an event of even a conversation, if they move at all or switch places at all, there is a large chance I won’t remember. Or if I didn’t have a chance to repeat names back at once or if they were all said at once, they are all probably jumbled uselessly in my head.


And I wish my collection were larger for your benefit and my own credit; but I am an idle fellow, and though I have not many, I have more than I ever look into.
Elizabeth assured him that she could suit herself perfectly with those in the room.
I am astonished, said Miss Bingley, that my father should have left so small a collection of books. — What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!
It ought to be good, he replied, it has been the work of many generations.
And then you have added so much to it yourself, you are always buying books.
I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.
Neglect! I am sure you neglect nothing that can add to the beauties of that noble place.
Charles, when you build your house, I wish it may be half as delightful as Pemberley.
I wish it may.
But I would really advise you to make your purchase in that neighbourhood, and take Pemberley for a kind of model. There is not a finer county in England than Derbyshire.
With all my heart; I will buy Pemberley itself if Darcy will sell it.
I am talking of possibilities, Charles.
Upon my word, Caroline, I should think it more possible to get Pemberley by purchase than by imitation.
Elizabeth was so much caught by what passed, as to leave her very little attention for her book; and soon laying it wholly aside, she drew near the card-table, and stationed herself between Mr. Bingley and his eldest sister to observe the game. 

Pride and Prejudice, ch. 8, Jane Austen  

And then imagine all the other sounds and things going on around you.* People walking. Lights and shadows everywhere. People breathing. A lot of the time, conversations happen when there are groups of people. So there are multiple conversations to keep track of or to shut out to pay attention to the one you are interested in. The sound of talking and words and syllables and laughter everywhere. Noise noise noise. And then there are all the bodies around you. Maybe walking behind you. Accidentally bumping into you. Keeping track of eye contact in a group or looking at faces at least (how do you do this in a group! Who do you look at?)

And before the story makes sense, you have to match up who said what with each body. You have to match up each person with their words to figure out their part in the story, so that each story makes sense.

Except if you are reading a novel, you can pause and go back over the pages and figure out who said what. With a conversation, you can’t pause it. It keeps going.** But it’s worth it (most of the time) because I want to hear the stories. I want to know the stories. I want to know the people. I want to hear their stories.***
 P.S. I generally enjoy Jane Austen novels, especially when I buy properly punctuated ones.
 P.P.S. Sorry for the weird fonts. I wrote this on a couple of different devices and it keeps switching back to the original everytime I try to change it.  I think I fixed it now!
 *Jane Austen doesn’t actually like to mix up her conversations and her descriptions. Well, really, she likes to if at all possible, leave nothing to describe. Just have it be books full of conversations. Between groups of people. Which can make the stories difficult to follow.
**Although actually if I’m talking to my friends and I hear something I want to respond to, I’ll raise my hand, and they will stop and say “Yes, Alana” and then that gives me time to catch up and figure out the conversation and then add up things I was going to say, especially since I don’t have to watch my words nearly as well. But I have awesome friends.
***Really, I love when people tell me random stories about their day. Or about their life. Yes, talk to me about what you had for breakfast. Breakfast is a safe topic. I can tell you what I had for breakfast, what my favorite breakfast foods are. But really, I would rather if you just talked. And told me stories all about you so that I could hear your stories and I could learn your stories.

Seas of faces

I don’t see faces.

Well, I do see them, literally. They have noses and eyes and mouths and hair. (Although I suppose technically faces don’t have hair besides eyebrows. Although eyebrows are hair. And actually surprisingly distinctive aka one of my tricks for identifying people).

But I don’t always get the point of them.

Eyes are beautiful. They have patterns and colors, and I could stare at them up close for hours and hours (but only of people I like) (because that’s inside a personal space bubbles and also it isn’t in the eye contact rules. Staring for a very long time close up at the patterns in eyes is not eye contact because appropriate eye contact is not all the time and the point of eye contact is not to literally look at eyes and the patterns of eyes, as far as I can tell. It is to do something else which I am not entirely certain, but people seem to like it.)

I didn’t think the Sistine chapel was all that beautiful. It was just faces painted on a flat wall. (Nowhere near as beautiful as all the other churches and cathedrals with patterns and carvings. Or Sagrada Familia! That was absolutely, positively the most beautiful, colorful, awesome place ever.) And it was crowded. 

The first picture is a view of the ceiling somewhere in Sagrada Familia. It has a lot of patterns and loopy symmetry.  The second picture is in the main part of Sagrada Familia. It is of columns headed up to the roof. The columns are curved and branch like trees up near the top. The last picture is stained glass windows (with abstract patterning) with light shining through them from behind. The mirrors on the bottom are long vertical ovals, with small circles interspersed. The windows on top are shaped like a flower.

Patterns! Patterns! Patterns! And incredible colors (not really demonstrated in these pictures)!*

Seas of faces. 

I never really understood the point of putting pictures on my walls of celebrities or people I don’t know. (I have pictures of friends and family because those pictures remind me of them, and they make me happy). There would just be their faces, faces I didn’t know, staring at me. I would always get marked down in class collages by one teacher because I wouldn’t put people in my collages (“There wasn’t anything to represent you,” she said. But we weren’t allowed to use actual photographs, so why would I put faces of strangers there who I didn’t know. How could I tell if they represented me or my feelings or whatever ridiculous thing she wanted out of these collages, when they were just faces out of magazines).

I couldn’t possibly be faceblind. It’s just that I don’t try hard enough (I’ve been told). I don’t look at faces long enough. I don’t care enough about people to learn their names**. It doesn’t matter if I spend hours studying their faces on facebook, trying to figure out how to tell people apart. They all blend into the same people. I identify people primarily by haircut, movement, and context. Not by faces***.

Seas of faces.

That’s what scares me in cities. 
There are seas of faces and all of them have minds. And every mind is thinking. Every mind is a person with their own thoughts and hopes and ideas and ways to think and secret things that get them upset. And they can all see you, too.

It’s ridiculously overwhelming.

But I do like (some) people, and I even like the faces of the people I like (when I recognize them). I’m just not entirely certain why them seem to be the end all-be all for so many people.

*Mostly I just wanted to show people my pictures (and they are pretty!) and because I like blogs with pictures but I want this to stay private so this is one of the rare opportunities I have to put pictures on, I believe. (I don’t have any of the Sistine Chapel because you aren’t allowed to take pictures there. And really, it isn’t all that beautiful.) Also, sorry if the descriptions aren’t that great. I’ve been looking at the blogs that have pictures, and they seem to have descriptions of the pictures underneath in italics for better accessability, so I am trying to do this, but I’m just really not quite sure how to describe these.
**It doesn’t matter that when my sister dresses up to go to a dance, I can’t recognize her. Look, I said, that girl has the same dress on as . How nice.
***In high school, my best friend was intrigued as to how I kept getting the characters mixed up in some old movie we were watching (there were a lot of men in suits and they all looked pretty similar). So she played a game where she put two (different) pictures of the same movie star for a bunch of the old movie stars (Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Gregory Peck, etc.) all scrambled up and tested to see if I could MATCH the people… I couldn’t. This was when I first started to realize my facial-recognition skills were abnormally low (I always knew they were awful, I just didn’t realize they were unusually bad, since my mother is only a little bit better than I am).


P.S. I am having serious issues with these pictures. Hopefully I got them to work this time. Does anyone know any expert ways to make them look pretty and wonderful?