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Sally Gates outlines research that sheds new light on how “face blindness” can be identified and supported

School can be an isolating place for a child with prosopagnosia: a sea of blank faces in the playground, with the same clothes, the same hairstyle and the same shoes. It’s not surprising that many children with prosopagnosia, or “face blindness”, withdraw completely and have difficulty making friends.

It is a recently identified condition – only listed by the NHS in 2014 – and so diagnosis has been patchy. Research published in January 2018 in Scientific Reports1 has revealed there are early indicators of face blindness in children as young as seven. If these are recognised, they could prompt early diagnosis and management.

“People we spoke to recalled childhood experiences of face blindness that weren’t picked up at the time,” explains Dr Sarah Bate who led the study at Bournemouth University. “These occurred between the ages of seven and eleven and were usually an embarrassing or even dangerous situation arising from the child’s inability to recognise faces. This demonstrates the potential to diagnose the condition much earlier. We realised we needed to provide a tool or checklist to help detect prosopagnosia in children. This just hasn’t existed until now.”

Common factors


By analysing interviews with over 50 adults and children with prosopagnosia, and some partners or parents too, the research team could identify common behavioural manifestations. These do not just focus on the limitations of the condition, but reveal the remarkable coping strategies people employ to manage everyday life.

“Someone with prosopagnosia will always arrive first for a meeting, so they don’t have to approach the other person,” says Dr Bate. “A child with prosopagnosia will gravitate towards someone in their class with a distinct appearance, like a Chinese child in a class of mostly Caucasian children or vice-versa.”

The team have used these and other common indicators to compile the first evidence-based symptom checker; something healthcare and education professionals have needed for some time.

Helen Brewer is Inclusion Co-ordinator at St Mark’s C of E Primary School in Bournemouth. “I’ve encountered a young child who doesn’t engage in the playground,” she says. “Maybe it’s because she just can’t see the people she knows in such a large and busy space, rather than because she doesn’t want to play with anyone. I can also see how face blindness may explain some attachment issues, particularly in larger families. The obvious suspicion in these cases is autism, but perhaps this isn’t the case.”

If you suspect your child or a child you work with has prosopagnosia you can check their symptoms against the online prosopagnosia checker.

Key signs of prosopagnosia:

  • difficulty following the storyline in films or TV programmes
  • problems identifying people in photographs
  • appearing lost at a busy place (playground or train station)
  • avoiding asking personal questions or using names
  • never introducing people
  • over-reliance on hairstyles, accents or other features to identify someone
  • confusing people who have similar hair or other features
  • not recognising someone out of context
  • not being able to imagine a person’s face.

Further information

The research team at Bournemouth University have created a prosopagnosia symptom checklist, which can be downloaded at: 

www.prosopagnosiaresearch.org/symptoms

Footnote

1: www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-20089-7


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