Remember the character Drew Barrymore played in “50 First Dates” who had short term memory loss and couldn’t remember things that happened after she got hit in the head? Well, this 20-year-old student named Amanda Green has a disorder similar to that, but much worse. However, she’s made the best of it and was able to successfully finish high school in 2008 and is currently in college studying to become a kindergarten teacher.
Amanda Green doesn’t recognize her professors or classmates. She needs directions to find her classrooms. She studies twice as long as many other students. But none of those or other challenges will suppress the 20-year-old’s goal to finish college and become a teacher. This spring she graduated from the White Bear Lake Area School District’s Transition Plus program and the Northeast Metro 916 Career and Technical Center’s Child Development Careers program. The White Bear Township resident is continuing her studies at Century College.
Most of her classmates don’t know Amanda has prosopagnosia — often called face blindness. According to the Prosopagnosia Research Centers at Harvard University and University College London, prosopagnosia is an impairment of the ability to recognize facial features and sometimes even more. There is no known cure; there are varying degrees.
Amanda doesn’t recognize any faces, not even her family members or close friends. “It’s like I’m meeting everyone for the first time every time,” she said. She also has trouble gauging facial expressions. The recognition impairments also extend beyond faces. She also has trouble recognizing places and many objects. Some research has suggested as much as 2 percent of the population has some degree of prosopagnosia. But cases as severe as Amanda’s are rare. According to her mother, Patty Green, Amanda’s one of only two known cases in Minnesota. She’s participated in several scientific studies aimed at finding the cause and a cure.
Some people are born with prosopagnosia. Others, including Amanda, acquire it after a brain injury. Amanda suffered brain damage at age 10 after developing herpes encephalitis. She spent a full month — the end of her fourth-grade year — in the hospital. Along with prosopagnosia, she suffered memory and other cognitive deprivations. She forgot how to read, how to calculate math problems and more. “I had to relearn everything,” she said. Special education services helped her relearn and continue on to graduate from White Bear Lake Area High School in 2008. She started taking courses at the Career and Technical Center senior year. Transitions Plus provides additional services for adult students, ages 18 to 21, with special needs.
Case manager Jean Thompson said Amanda keeps a positive attitude and doesn’t give up. “She’s come so far,” Thompson said. Her 916 teacher, Deb Warnsholz, encouraged her to attend Century College. She’s now taking a full course load working toward Associate of Arts and Associate of Science degrees. After this summer she’ll have completed 47 credits.
Persisting short-term memory impairments mean she still has to study harder than most. “But she always was a hard worker,” Patty said. Amanda learned strategies to cope with her recognition inabilities. Written directions and many trial runs before the start of the semester help her navigate Century College hallways. Cues such as voice, hairstyle and clothing help her identify people — although colorblindness inhibits her ability to assess many of those features.
It’s hard to make and keep friends when you don’t recognize them when you pass them in the hall, Amanda said. Some people assume she’s standoffish, yet she doesn’t tell most people about her prosopagnosia. Part of it is personal security concerns. But mostly it’s because many people who’ve never heard of prosopagnosia find her tale of trials inconceivable. “It’s hard for people to understand,” she said. “It’s hard being different.”
She plans to continue on to a four-year college and complete a teaching degree in 2013. Amanda, who’s worked and volunteered at several day care centers and a school, wants to become a kindergarten teacher. Accommodations would be needed, such as her students would have to wear nametags until she’s learned other cues to identify them.
Later she plans to return to school for a special education degree and someday teach students with special needs. Her own experiences, she said, have given her empathy for fellow people who are ‘different’. Her advice for those people who face extra challenges: “Be willing to try new things. Keep working at it.”