Even though she hates lawn ornaments, Sharon Roseman, 68, has a grinning, pink lobster outside her home in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. She calls him Louie, and when she comes home, the lobster’s gaudy presence is the only thing that lets her know for sure that she’s made it to the right house.
Locating what should be a familiar landmark isn’t just hard for Roseman. Most of the time, it’s impossible. Roseman has a neurological condition called Developmental Topographical Disorientation, or DTD for short. She’s one in a relatively small population—there’s no official tally, though some researchers estimate 1 to 2 percent of people—of people who have extremely limited navigational skills and cannot form what scientists call “cognitive maps.”
Every morning when she wakes up, Roseman has to re-learn her way to her kitchen. When she can, she gets friends to drive her places; the rest of the time, she limits herself to destinations that require few turns, which sometimes means taking 30 minutes on a journey that would have otherwise taken 10. Dating was a nightmare, she said, because she could never tell potential boyfriends how to bring her home. And even though she had a successful career as an executive assistant before retiring in 2011, she could only take jobs that allowed her to commute entirely along straight roads (even curvature threw her off), and after-work happy hours at new bars were out of the question. Others with the condition say it’s like being a perpetual tourist in places that should be familiar. People with DTD can still theoretically understand verbal directions, read maps, and use GPS, though with difficulty; Roseman said that trying to understand GPS directions while driving is too overwhelming for her.