EMORY (US) — Children suffering from extreme social anxiety are often trapped in a nightmare of misinterpreted facial expressions, confusing angry faces with sad ones.
“If you misread facial expressions, you’re in social trouble, no matter what other social skills you have,” says Steve Nowicki, professor of psychology at Emory University. “It can make life very difficult, because other people’s faces are like a prism through which we look at the world.”
It is unclear whether misreading the facial expression is linked to the cause of the anxiety, or merely contributing to it. By identifying the patterns of errors in nonverbal communication, Nowicki says he hopes to create better diagnostic tools and interventions for those affected with a range of behavioral disorders.
It’s easy to assume that a socially anxious child would be especially sensitive to anger, Nowicki says. “It turns out that they never learn to pick up on anger and often make the error of seeing it as sadness. It sets up a very problematic interaction.”
Some socially anxious children long to interact with others and may try to comfort someone they think is sad, but who is actually angry. “I’ve seen these kids trying to make a friend, and keep trying, but they keep getting rebuffed and are never aware of the reason why.”
Details of the research will be reported in the Journal of Genetic Psychology.
For more than two decades, in association with Emory psychologist Marshall Duke, Nowicki has produced a body of work on how non-verbal communication impacts a child’s development, finding that in a range of children with behavioral disorders, including high-functioning autism, direct teaching can improve non-verbal communication.
“When I first started this work, people asked me, why are you doing this? Everybody can recognize emotions in faces,” Nowicki says. Nonverbal communication was not taken that seriously, and was for the most part relegated to magazine articles.
In his clinical practice, however, Nowicki noticed that some children who had trouble socializing appeared to misinterpret nonverbal clues so he sought ways to measure the deficits and remediate them.
Nowicki and Duke termed the coin “dyssemia,” meaning the inability to process signs and developed the Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy (DANVA) to assess subtle cues to emotional expressions, including visual signals and tone and cadence of voice.
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