Why I can’t remember your name as an autistic person.

“What’s my name, Quincy?” … “Come on, we’re in the same English class, how can you not know who I am?”

This has become a common interaction for me at school recently, ever since it became widespread knowledge that “Quincy can’t remember anyone’s name.” I get stopped a lot with people asking me the same question: “what’s my name?” I hate it. I hate it because a majority of the time I really don’t know what their name is. This is usually followed by them relenting about how I was in the same class as them, or we talked once, or they “thought we were friends” (even if I didn’t think we were friends). They become totally baffled at how I could “not know know who they are” given we’re at the same school (and I’m at a small private school with less than 400 kids total, everyone knows everyone to some degree). It’s become annoying because generally people have been very nice to me at this school. So, I’m writing this to explain why myself and other autistic people may have trouble remember people’s names.

What’s in a name?

There’s a common misconception that people seem to have when they learn that I don’t know their name: that that therefore means that I don’t know who they are. This is untrue. I can know all about a person, their personality, likes, what they did yesterday, facts about them, and all sorts of other things without knowing their names. I’m not sure why this confuses some people, but it does. You see, when I think of a person I don’t think of their name, I think of them. When I think of anything I don’t think of the word for it, I see pictures of it, and feel it, and hear it. Thinking is a sensory experience for me, my thought process does not resemble an “internal monologue” of just words. I really do think in pictures. And really, a name is just a word used to represent a person.

Thinking in pictures

Now, there are sometimes words in my head, but it’s always in the context of using words, like thinking about what I’ll write next, or say next, or remembering verbatim what someone else said. But mostly, when I think, I don’t really have what you might call an “internal monologue,” when I think I see, and feel, and hear what I’m thinking about. Thinking is a sensory experience. I think in raw emotion and raw sensory input. I didn’t realize that some people think that this is strange until recently. 

The whole “thinking in pictures” deal is often associated with autism, though as with most things with autism, it actually doesn’t exclusively apply to autistic people, nor does it apply to all autistic people. There are non-autistic people who don’t have a so-called “internal monologue” and think with pictures like I described, and there are also plenty of autistic people who think traditionally, by hearing their own voice in their head.

A picture of a highway sign that reads “Exit 119, No Name, REST AREA” Image from No Name, Colorado. Image labeled for fair use.

However, it is also true that a lot of autistic people have trouble remembering names, and so I suggest that, like me, this is because of their thinking style. It is also true that some people (in the standard neurotypical arbitrary fashion) have decided that remembering names is some mega-important “social skill.” And so, I’m also here to offer these pieces of wisdom:

If a person cannot remember your name (particularly an autistic person) it’s not some great personal insult. It’s not because they don’t like you, or found you forgettable, or are intentionally trying to put you down. It doesn’t mean they don’t remember you or don’t know who you are. Please stop judging people for such minuscule things as the ability to remember names. This of course isn’t the only minuscule thing that autistic people get unfairly ridiculed for on a daily basis, but ultimately this attitude is a big reason why the world is so inaccessible for autistic people.

Can we please start respecting different thinking styles, as well as the consequences that come from them?


14 thoughts on “Why I can’t remember your name as an autistic person.

  1. Sorry about this, the previous comment was made with my old WordPress account, I forgot to log into my new account, which this current comment reply is being sent by.

    You’ve made an interesting blog post, and I can understand where you’re coming from. Living on the autistic spectrum myself, when it comes to people on films and television series, I can tell you, more or less, what other film or series they originate from, but not their names as actors, and sometimes not even as characters. I could even tell you what generation the film or show would have come from simply because of the grain of film, or due to the hairstyles, clothing, colours and patterns shown. I once knew an autistic girl once who was able to recite and remember all the actors and actresses’ names, and everything. It’s because she was mad on Doctor Who, and could go on and on about it. She’s not a pleasant memory, not because of her specialist interest, but because she didn’t want to get to know me at all. I had different specialist interests from her, but I could see how dedicated she was to it. A long and harrowing experience… Anyway in that respect, clearly it’s got something to do with each individual’s abilities, or their specialist interests.

    It’s funny you should mention autism and the recognition of names. As I said, I’m on the autistic spectrum myself, I have a very fixed and focused direction of my memories. This memory is not associated with the male population, but to females specifically. This is due to emotional trauma, not just my autism. My memory can be extremely strong with a mixture of their names, their personalities, their habits, and their interests.

    I find the reason stems not just simply due to my autism, but from the past traumas and memories of the past. I have been betrayed and hurt many times in my life, and I recognise certain traits and names. To me, they result in a trigger of memories from social experiences which failed badly that have been scarred into my brain, particularly of the female persuasion. Take for example, I see a reminder of a particular programme a female I knew used to like, such as Doctor Who, or the job another female used to do, like hairdressing.

    Let’s just say, if a female grew to mean a lot to me, I will never forget them, their name, nor my memories about them. I feel like I have this kind of a black book of social failures etched into my brainbox. There is only one particular girl who’s name completely escaped me, because I was under shock at the time, and who I have never had a chance to get to know. That’s because she’s the one girl who could have made all the difference for me, because she was the only girl I ever met who admitted (through her friends maybe), that she liked me…

    For me, subconsciously, I’m unable to forget the other experiences with other females because inside I feel it would be dishonourable to her memory. On top of which, when I wrote to them over the many years, I really liked them, and I gave them my all. I just hoped that through all my best efforts, one of them would like me in return, but it just kept failing over and over again.

    One particular harrowing experience lasted over 6 years, and that is the one which caused me the most trauma because she was the one I did the most for, gave many personal gifts, words of encouragement and endearment. Towards the end, she sent me photographs of herself posing to camera, which shocked me, because it totally out of character for her. I thought she was starting to like me. It took me a long time, through those years, due to my trauma, but I was finally able to open up to her more about my feelings for her, but she just kept twisting my words. In the end, she called me a liar, said I didn’t care about her, you name it, she said it. It was all a lie of course, and she should have known that, but she was in total denial. I knew, by sending me those posing photographs of herself, in a way she’s never done before, she had a feeling for me she didn’t want to admit to herself. She just threw me away like I was a piece of rubbish. That is the longest experience of failure I’ve had getting to know a female.

    All I ever wanted in life is for a girl to get to know me, to be understood, for them to care, for us to share our interests, but no, no matter how hard I try, how much effort I put in, it just keeps going wrong. I’m just being myself, I cannot ‘mask’ and I cannot ‘pass’, When will I ever find a girl who’ll accept me for who I am? This is not a question I’m asking you directly, it’s just a philosophical question, if anything…

    The world can be extremely cruel to us on the autistic spectrum, I’ve been through my own forms of trauma too. Even as simple as the meanings of some sayings people have said or platitudes spoken, or written, show me how the world and people in general take them, use them, and can twist them into something completely different.

    I have an older blog myself on WordPress talking about my autism, but it didn’t really make much difference. I’m now creating a blog, without mentioning my autism as someone’s suggestion. I don’t know how successful it will be, I’ve written three blog posts so far. Here’s a link if you’re interested: https://bit.ly/2vTMQ1p

    If you’re not interested, well, I just wanted to say, you’ve written a very interesting blog post, :D. It’s fascinating reading perspectives from other people on the autistic spectrum. I’ve tried so hard over the years to communicate to find someone to write to, but I’m always finding it practically impossible… Anyway, as I said, you’ve written a great blog post, :D.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thinking about your blog post further, I started to remember, I think I’m starting to understand more about the concept of seeing people’s names in pictures. It’s an interesting way to describe remembering people. I have a similar way when it comes to noticing patterns in names. Take for example, I wrote to three different girls over the years with two ‘L’s in their surname, and their names, they had two letters before the two ‘L’s on all three of their surnames, collectively. They were all friendly at first, until it took a turn for the worse, and I had no control over any of them. Each one of them pushed me away, one way or another, each in their own individual way. It’s almost as if they pattern were trying to tell me something, but what, I can’t be sure. Was I supposed to learn something from all of that? That it’s them, not me? Or, is the case that I have watch out for anyone with two ‘L’s in their surname? It’s a puzzle, I must admit…

      Another pattern I recognised happened when I could recognise the letters on a box which arrived with a gift I was planning to give a particular girl. The letters on the box spelt her name exactly in sequence. Not all in one go, but one letter after another showed up all in a line, across the box and to the line beneath it. The last ‘L’ I saw was of the side of a marker. It was uncanny the fact that the whole first and surname were spelt all in a row. I always wonder about patterns and their meanings, but I can never tell what they’re trying to tell me. I feel, if I could work out the meaning of these patterns, I might be able to understand the path my life’s taking. You know, like the meaning of life or something. Who knows? All I do know is that these patterns can appear in some of the most unexpected places.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. If i may build out and add some thoughts on a couple things: I think remembering the real actor’s name (and character names) of a person in a show is quite normal for people who may not be able to remember the name of someone new who sits next to them at work. The character (and thus person) is fairly consistent and can be associated easily. 10th Doctor = Brown haired one = wry humor = english waistcoats = David Tennet (or however their mind makes the association. Memory is not the issue as the ability to recall small details is elevated in many ASD folks. But in this closed world of a TV Show, it is controlled and about accessing the data, more than making a conclusion. In real life, people change their clothes, hairstyles, look different when tired or stressed, are not in context with where you expect to see them. If you see David Tennet in a show where he has the same hair and wears an English waistcoat (a lot of his roles), then he is easy to pick out. But if he wears a wig, speaks in an American accent, and dresses like someone else… my mind will go nuts trying to figure out where i know him from. I almost always think i know them from real life. In real life, new people are always out of context.


  2. Usually people forgive me when I tell them that I struggle with faces and can’t always recognize my own mother. I think they find the silly stories about not recognizing my mom pretty funny. I am lucky that people are OK with my differences.

    I hope people at your school are able to get over it and move on to an idea that’s more worth their time. You can not remember names and still remember people, and you can struggle with memory and still care about them.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. “I can know all about a person, their personality, likes, what they did yesterday, facts about them, and all sorts of other things without knowing their names. I’m not sure why this confuses some people, but it does. You see, when I think of a person I don’t think of their name, I think of them. When I think of anything I don’t think of the word for it, I see pictures of it, and feel it, and hear it. Thinking is a sensory experience for me, my thought process does not resemble an “internal monologue” of just words.”

    Yes – thinking of the PERSON and their THEM-NESS and how you become US with them.

    And I thought this might be the case before I read the paragraph above.

    So it might be well to ask “What do you see/feel/think/hear of me?” – that is so much more intimate and identifiable than someone’s name – which they may not identify with any more than you do.

    I wonder how you go with avatars or other graphical representations of Internet people?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I can understand what you mean and how you feel, especially if you find it easier writing on the internet than speaking in person, like I do… I personally like to add an avatar image of something related to the name I call myself. In this case, I’ve chosen to represent my feelings of feeling lost, so I have an image of a person wandering alone in an unknown environment. It’s true, I do have different profile images in different places, but again, this is because I’m portraying my feelings at the time. In a way, I feel it’s a kind of pictorial impression of my feelings at the time, or something I’m interested in, like Japanese animation or video games, or my own photography and abstract designs.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I have a horrible time remembering names and dates. I think of people and just about everything as a package concept with emotions, personal experiences, and a general summary defining the edges. Details I notice randomly. So, I’ll know how many light fictures are in a room without noticing something obvious.

    I’m the worst with birthdays of friends and family. I now try to write them all on a couple of wall calendars at the first of the year so I see it over and over again that month… And I still sometimes forget.

    People can take it personally that I keep asking their name in the beginning of a friendship, but they take it way way worse if they find out months later that I don’t know their name – even if I care a lot about them! They don’t believe me, I guess. It seems neurotypical people can intentionally not learn a name if they don’t care about someone and so its an obvious insult to them? (I don’t know.) But seeing their name written helps me. So, Facebook is a big help for me. It has their written name next to their picture to remind me often without having to ask.

    Sometimes I’m bad with faces though. So, that’s a whole other thing when I don’t know if the person sending me a Facebook request is a person I talked to before.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I saw the picture of the sign you posted and without thinking knew exactly where in colorado that sign is, and how long it would take me to get there from every house my parents have ever lived in despite not having seen the sign in over 10 years. Yet, I got completely lost driving someplace that is only 1 mile from home becasue i took a road that i didn’t know and i had only driven there once before (the previous week). i couldn’t connect two adjascent parts of town with any roads in my head and just kept going the wrong way.


  6. Social standards have many believing name recognition means you are actually interested and know who they are. Perhaps saying “I don’t remember your name but I know this about you” would help. If you want others to work to understand what is going on inside your brain I think it could be helpful to acknowledge that you do indeed know who they are but in a different manner than most people would expect or think of.
    Just as you would like others to recognize you and your differences, many people would like to know that you do indeed recognize them regardless of not knowing their name.
    My niece has autism and often calls people by others names. I found this article very helpful in understanding that she does know who we are even when confusing our names. Thank you.


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