Jumpin’ In & Stimmin’ About

As a child, I couldn’t picture my mother’s face

1989. Let the quality of this image be a lesson about what happens when you scan prints and throw out the originals :(

1989. Let the quality of this image be a lesson about what happens when you scan prints and throw out the originals :(

I might be able to remember, logically, that she had blue eyes, or big hair, or that she was pale, but I would not be able to visualize anything but a whitish fog with red hair around it.

When she picked me up from school, I would look for her car, listen for the sound of her heels tapping down the school hallway, or recognize her jacket and hair.

If she had shown up in costume, I would have relied on the sound of her voice.

It’s not unusual, and it’s not a huge character flaw, but it is a big step for me to admit this, particularly because of what I do (even though it’s one of the reasons I became a photographer) – that I am face blind.

This gets embarrassing

My partner arranged a dinner date with his co-worker and his pregnant wife. An hour into dinner, sitting straight across from this woman, I learned that she was a doctor who worked at the nearby hospital.

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask her if she knew my old primary care doctor – the woman I visited regularly every year for checkups, before I realized it was her.

One month later, I’m at the grocery store and there is a woman holding a baby, 15 minutes later I realize it was her – again. Lady talking to me at a holiday party for twenty minutes – oh! It’s her again.

She just keeps popping up in different places. It probably happens with lots of people, she’s just the only person I’ve repeatedly noticed.

I do the same thing with everyone. If we met unexpectedly, I would calculate your estimated your age, hairstyle, clothing, and accompanying aged children to figure out who the heck you are. I have smiled and hugged a lot of ‘strangers’ – cousins at the amusement park, classmates at a wedding. You get the idea.

Unless you have a third eye or some particularly descriptive feature, I just won’t recognize you out of context

Unless I’ve taken your photograph

I started taking Polaroids when I was seven. In high school I’d spend my days photographing for the school paper and my nights tinkering Photoshop. When I got access to a darkroom in college, I spent hours dodging, burning, and exposing meticulous prints.

Memorizing faces is like trying to memorize the details of a thousand unique ink splatters

Studying these two-dimensional images gave me time to commit the complex shapes and contours of a face to memory. Once I take enough pictures of someone, I am able to recognize features from multiple angles. Photography is how I study and connect with people.

This has turned out to be a strength, artistically. Life looks like a giant 3D tetris game full of complex elements, and photography subjects are just moving shapes in space.

With a camera, I know how to pick the best angle in three-dimensional space to create beautiful compositions in ordinary spaces at just the right moment to capture a sense of place, time, and connection – to tell the story of a family.

I just can’t do it while also pretending to be normal.

Hiding what makes me a good photographer while also being a good photographer is the most challenging part of every session

My job is to to help families connect with their stories – something I am uniquely suited to do, something vital to the future of a healthy family.

What I spend my time and effort on, however, is convincing people of why they need this, communicating what I do and why it’s so important. I am terrible at that part. 80% of my energy goes into looking people in the eye, translating eyebrow movement into nuances, and trying not to fiddle. I had to learn body language, facial expressions, and how to process metaphors through trial and error. I spend so much energy pretending to be normal that it can pull my attention away from my work.

The truth is that being a successful portrait photographer has nothing to do with the quality of your work

Since the majority of families are not artists, most parents don’t value great photography – they value great communication.

Peeking out from behind the camera, understanding each member’s point of view, translating what they say into my literal world and making eye contact is what convinces people that I am a great photographer.

Isn’t that kind of silly?

Until I realized my brain worked differently, I thought face blindness and the struggle of eye contact was something everyone else figured out because they worked harder than me, and my strengths were something everyone could do with a little practice.

When people realize that I don’t recognize them, they might think I’m a dumb, weird, or jerk. When I accidentally mix up two women in the middle of a photo session, it’s mortifying. When I fail to recognize parents of my son’s classmates, it’s my morning reminder that I’m not trying hard enough. That I’m failing to be a decent person.

What kind of jerk mom doesn’t recognize her own children?

I care about my sons. I care about my partner. I would not be able to memorize and recognize their faces if it weren’t for the photographs I’ve taken of them.

2012 - Just in the door from the hospital

2012 – Just in the door from the hospital

Because of photography, I can feel the joy of picturing my newborn’s face during his first hour home.

I have to accept and acknowledge that my brain isn’t broken – it’s not bad. It makes me a better photographer because it drives me.

It will frighten away potential clients. I face frustrations when friends, family and acquaintances discount or dismiss what I say because I’m viewed through a label of dysfunction rather than difference.

There is only way to show people that we are not dysfunctional – that we are just different, living in a world not built for us

I must make my differences visible

I am different. I am competent. I am autistic.

I am more than a bag of symptoms. My personality and skills, while intertwined by autism, are not defined by it.

Many people treat autism like a disease to be cured or prevented. Those of us with more obstacles do need training and assistance to help us function in a world full of body-language, metaphoc, itchy clothing, and loud noises.

Ultimately, what needs to change is not us – but the way we are viewed. Many of us do not see ourselves as dysfunctional or deficient, any more than a person with pale skin is deficient because they weren’t born wearing sunblock.

It’s a characteristic of my brain that not everyone on the planet shares with me, but it’s not an objectively good or bad thing, and it does not make me incapable of doing most things well or even some things better than average.

I’m just like anyone else.

There are some things I am clearly deficient in. Reading and memorizing faces, dealing with certain sounds, trouble parsing flowery language, catching a ball, or writing with a pen. There are some things that I am just a beat off on – this is the dangerous stuff that gets me into trouble with those who are particularly intuitive.

When my façade of passing slips, it makes these people profoundly uncomfortable because they know something is off.

I’m not going to deny there are some challenges, or that some of the coping mechanisms I’ve developed aren’t cumbersome or difficult.

Being an adult, a woman, and a mother make it particularly isolating since the current assumption is that autism is a population of young men who love trains. It’s not – they are just easier to recognize than the rest of us. As a result, these are the people with the strongest support systems and the most resources available to integrate into society.

People like John Elder Robinson and Michael John Carley have built their success capitalizing on the particular strengths autism affords them and use these strengths in their parenting toolboxes. Clearly there is something valuable that autistic people are contributing to the world, even more so now that they are being understood.

The question is – why come out now?

This has been an unannounced non-secret amount my family and friends for a while now, but it seems like a really terrible career move for someone in an industry involving so much social interaction and facial focus. Despite my (very autistic) tendency to want full transparency and honesty on all things, I’ve learned over the years it’s safer to keep unusual things and unsolicited facts to myself.

The reason is mostly selfish. I want you to know I’m not a jerk – that I do care.

I want you to know that if I don’t recognize you at the playground, or I misstep and say something odd, it’s not because I’m a sociopath. I want you to understand that I’m fidgeting and looking away from you not because I’m being dishonest, but just because I was up all night with a sick baby and I’m too tired for the exhausting calculus of body language.

I want the people on the opposite end of the spectrum, for whom social interaction is easy and intuition is a gift of birth, to know that the thing that feels ‘off’ about me does not make me a terrible person any more than a blind person is for ignoring a ‘No Loitering’ sign.

Why not tell the whole world?

We’re starting the process for early intervention for one of my sons. Whether he is autistic or not, it’s important to me that he feel absolutely zero shame for how his brain processes information. I can’t tell him that without being shameless about my own neuro-diversity. Keeping it an open secret looks a lot like shame.

Some my motivation it is to search for a network of autistic mothers to commiserate with has left me feeling lonely. My search for autistic portrait photographers has turned up zilch [update – one!] Someone has to stand up and add to the chorus of regular people with autistic brains who are contributing members of society, even if we aren’t geniuses like Temple Grandin or Einstein.

Mostly, because for the rest of my life, instead of having a panic attack when I accidentally confuse two people in the middle of a photography session, it just won’t be a big deal. I can say “Oops, sorry, I’m face blind.”

Autism is not a personal failing  – or something to hide

I want to leave the house and go grocery shopping without being ‘on’ in itchy clothing and the hour-long checklist I go through to appear normal. I want to use coping mechanisms in public without worrying that a client will see the ‘real’ me – particularly in a crowded grocery store full of noise, lights, and displays seemingly designed to drive me bonkers.

I want families with autism in their lives to know they have someone who understands and is happy to work with them. If dad needs to stim his way through a portrait session, if mom needs a detailed itinerary of what to expect, or if the click of a shutter or the light of a flash is distracting and unnerving to kids – I get it.

I want to work with clients who know and understand my strengths and weaknesses, so we can get past it and get to what matters – changing the world and connecting people to their memories.


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Dana Fine - December 9, 2015 - 10:08 pm

My family has face blindness, also know as prosopagnosia. It is a spectrum – for them all faces appear to be the same and they rely on hair, other features to distinguish one person from another with limited success. However, they are not autistic, even though having prosopagnosia does limit the facial social cues that they can observe and their social interactions. Did you have a diagnosis of autism at some point in your life? My sons are also sensitive to fabrics etc. but not considered autistic. I help them identify who is who on television from scene to scene etc. I just think autism has become overused and the definition too broad to make sense. Prospagnosia is co-morbid with autism but autism does not have to be present to have face blindness. Harvard has a prosopagnosia center but from what I can tell, it does not seem to do very much. I thought your article was interesting and though provoking. Thank you.

Vicki Boyer - April 11, 2016 - 4:52 am

First I would like to say is, What a cute baby you have! Next. About 10 years ago I read an article about a woman who had ‘face blindness’. I admired her so much because it sounded difficult to live (cope) with and she just dealt with it and went on with her life. The article never mentioned that it was or could be from being on the spectrum. I think that you also, are an amazing person, taking an adversity and turning it into a positive career ability. I think there are other people in the world who would view you as pretty darn incredible too. Not everyone–there are many ignorant (uneducated, not stupid) people around that aren’t so bad once they realize ‘autism’ doesn’t mean crazy, insane, mentally incompetant or from another planet. The two girls in the picture by my name are my granddaughters. They’re both great kids. Being a grandmother has been the most joyful part of my life. The smaller one will be 8 in May and was diagnosed with autism at 18 months. She is in a regular school and gets extra help. I will do everything I can to help her be successful in her life, whatever she chooses to do. I used to be one of those ignorant people until she came along. She’s ‘different’ not ‘less than’ and I am sure she will turn her adversities into positives just as you have. Believe in yourself-you’re already a success!