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Dealing with Dyssemia

If they do, it may be hard for you to imagine what 10% of all adults and children who have dyssemia go through. Dyssemics can neither decipher facial expressions nor use them appropriately. They also have no understanding of the tone and pitch of voice. According to Albert Mehrabian, who has conducted extensive research on non-verbal communication, we decode another’s feeling or emotion by relying 55% on their facial expressions, 38% on tone of voice and only 7% on words. Imagine the dyssemic’s plight – communication and social interactions go awry as he receives and sends skewed non-verbal signals!

Children who ‘just do not get it’

Clinical psychologists and academicians Stephen Norwicki and Marshall P. Duke coined the term ‘dyssemia’ to define trouble with non-verbal cues in communication. They also developed a test, called the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy (DANVA) to
assess dyssemia, by breaking down non-verbal communication abilities.

Peers and adults find children with dyssemia ‘irritating and weird’. Social interactions are tedious for children with dyssemia. They are often alienated and frustrated, as most of their efforts to be friendly backfire. Left with a feeling that they have no control over how others treat them, dyssemic children end up feeling powerless and apathetic.

Dr. Jaishree Ramakrishnan, consultant psychologist and member of ParentEdge’s Panel of Experts, who has worked closely with dyssemic children, says, “Many a time, these children are labelled blunt or sarcastic because their words, their expressions and physical demonstrations do not go hand in hand. They may wish someone ‘Happy Birthday’ but their intonation may make it appear insincere or sarcastic. Individuals with dyssemia also have challenges in managing their impulsiveness. If a teacher arrives five minutes late for the class, the child with dyssemia will immediately blurt out, “Do you know you are late?’”


Often, the child’s symptoms are termed as bad behaviour. Punishment is doled out to ‘teach the child a lesson’ or ‘keep him in line’. A vicious cycle is triggered.

Dyssemia, if left unmanaged, will continue into adulthood as well, and interfere in the individual’s workplace life as well as social life.

Causes of Dyssemia
Neurological disorders – 5%

Emotional difficulties or trauma that derail social development – 10%

A lack of appropriate situations and experiences to learn non-verbal language – 85%

Struggling to make sense of the world
Parvathi* is a 33-year-old HR professional who received a diagnosis of dyssemia only in her adulthood; in her case, frustration, despair and loneliness led to clinical depression. Parvathi faced many problems while growing up, which, she now realises, were signs of her dyssemia. “I did not understand the world at all. I was reported to ‘say one thing and do something else’ or ‘blow hot and blow cold’. In spite of all this, if I made friends, I could not keep them.” She could not turn for acceptance or help to her mother who was “a perfectionist – a critical and autocratic parent”.


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