Following on from my earlier post ‘So what’s it like to be dyslexic?’ I thought I would share my experiences of selective mutism.
Anyone who has known me as an adult would find it hard to believe that I was selectively mute as a child. Like the vast majority of selectively mute children in the 1970s I was never diagnosed and had never heard of selective mutism until I had my own son who is autistic and often had periods when he just could not speak in particular situations. Before I discovered selective mutism as a condition I would of described myself as a profoundly shy child however I always knew that wasn’t really the right description as in some situations I wasn’t shy at all, in fact I ran a door to door car washing business as a child for which I needed great communication skills.
What is selective mutism?
Selective mutism is different from shyness as it only occurs in particular situations and is a total in ability to speak at these times. It feels as if the words are stuck inside you, almost like being breathless only with words if that makes sense? What causes selective mutism is little understood but it often occurs along side autism although it is not directly an autistic trait, it is not linked as to trauma or abuse either but there seems to be a link to social or generalised anxiety.
For me personally both my parents were likely undiagnosed autistics and both were social but struggled in certain situations which may of led to me becoming socially anxious in these same situations due to picking that up from them or I may of just been born with more of a tenancy towards social anxiety that my siblings. Whatever the cause I largely grew out of it by my mid to late teens except for one notable reoccurrence in my early 20’s when I attended a protest against road building and lost the ability to speak for two days and had to come home as it hampered my ability to be of much use and caused me huge frustration and anxiety.
Every selectively mute individual has different triggers or environments where they are socially mute, my main ones were school (which is very common) and in shops where I found it impossible to ask for anything or say please or thank you. I also found groups of strangers difficult unless I had a particular friend with me.
How does having selective mutism affect you?
For me I felt a bit of an idiot and it added to my anxiety that I was aware it might happen in certain situations. I could not answer my name in the register, read out loud, ask to be excused to go to the toilet, for help with my work or to discuss why my homework wasn’t in on time. If a question was asked by the teacher I would make myself a small as possible to hope I would not be picked, even if I knew the answer, because I knew the words would stick inside of me and everyone would stare, it made school enormously stressful at times.
Sometimes as I got older I would be in groups and not be able to talk. The longer it went on the worse it got. I sometimes after a period of being ignored I could manage to get a word or two out but it took such an effort I would often miss my opportunity to speak and would be talked over or asked to repeat it (this was the worst, guaranteed to set me up for not being able to speak again for the rest of my time in that situation).
Feelings I associate with being selectively mute are embarrassment, humiliation, lack of self worth, being different, fear, failure, panic and self loathing. If I had understood better what was happening perhaps those feelings would of been lessened or perhaps I would of been supported to find a better way through.
Recognising selective mutism
You would think a child being mute would be an easy thing to spot but if you don’t see a child across settings for example,only as part of a busy class, you may not. My family had no idea I didn’t speak at school, neither did my best friend who was in the year below me. My class mates often noticed and it was something I was teased about but teachers just saw me as compliant but quiet.
I remember my french teacher comment in a school report ‘I can not tell whether she has a great knowledge or none at all as she is so quiet during oral lessons so I have decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and place her knowledge somewhere in the middle’. Hence I got a C for an oral lesson in which I had never spoken!
I became good at masking my difficulties and used to mouth the words often, although this is not always possible as selectively mute children can ‘freeze’ physically at times, depending on how anxious the situation is making them and the approaches used. This can be recognised by a rabbit in the headlights type stare and seemly temporary deafness (although you can hear).
Do’s and don’ts of supporting a child with selective mutism;
- Do include them in activities and talk to them in an indirect way. For example you can say ‘come in closer’ or ‘I think you will enjoy this story’ speak with statements not questions. This builds trust and confidence because there is involvement without being asked questions. Reducing anxiety and building the child’s sense of being valued will help to neutralise a situation that a child is finding anxiety inducing and may over time help the mutism improve.
- Do not single out a selectively mute child to answer questions. You may find a selectively mute child works well as part of a group especially if a trusted friend is also in the same group as it is often possible for a SM child to speak when a friend is present. Allowing the group as a whole to share their knowledge it will allow a selectively mute child to take part and share knowledge.
- Do offer reassurance using body language and facial expressions. A smile or a nod can mean the world to a child ho feels unable to get involved due to inability to speak, acknowledging them and allowing space (without pressure) for them to get involved without the need to speak will help reduce each anxiety and preserve self esteem.
- Do not try to force or encourage a SM child to speak. Feeling pressure to speak will only heighten anxiety and compound the problem. Chatting to them instead without questioning them, praising skills show in no verbal ways and accepting them as they are in their silent state will be much more affective in building confidence and removing communication and confidence blocks.
- Do not draw attention or praise a selective mute child for speaking. When you have not known a child to speak and they suddenly do the instinct is to praise but drawing attention to it is the worst thing you can do. Instead make sure space is given to hear them and engage with them without comment on the speech itself.
- Do work on confidence and relationship building. strong relationships and playing to strengths and interests will build confidence and self esteem and whether or not that ultimately improves speech, they will preserve and support the child’s mental health.
Are there any benefits to being selectively mute?
Although in many ways being selectively mute as a child was difficult I also believe it did give me some skills I may not of had otherwise. These include being a good listener, a better understanding of human behaviour from all the observing I did as a child, greater focus, ability to problem solve and think outside of the box.