When my family and I moved back to Illinois after a three year stay in Colorado, we needed to hunt for a new church. After settling on one, the kids got pretty comfortable going to their Sunday school class. They always had a smile on their face when we picked them up and seemed to have a fun time.
One Sunday the teacher asked me, “Does Ben know how to talk?”
I was floored by this question. Of course he does! He was 3.5-years-old at the time when she asked. He was a very verbal, expressive boy at home but apparently not at church.
I didn’t think much of it. The church was still fairly new at the time, maybe he was just shy.
Well, fast forward 8 months, same church, same Sunday school class for my son, same teachers, same kids. Still no talking.
Now I started to get a little concerned. I also started noticing more that he wouldn’t just stop talking at church but he wouldn’t around any new person, anyone he knew but hadn’t seen in a long time, social gatherings like family parties, play dates with new kids, etc.
I’m lucky to have two very close friends who are therapists. One is a developmental therapist. She was babysitting him for me one day and had to stop over at a friend’s house so she brought him with. Of course my son didn’t say a word when he was there. It was a new house with new people. My friend told me, “Oh he definitely has selective mutism.”
This was something I had never heard of before. I thought she was making it up. Turns out she wasn’t.
The Selective Mute Diagnosis
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Selective Mutism falls within the category of anxiety disorders. Some of the diagnostic criteria for selective mutism, as cited in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, are:
-The child shows consistent failure to speak in specific social situations in which there is an expectation for speaking, despite speaking in other situations.
-The disturbance interferes with educational or occupational achievement or with social communication.
-The failure to speak is not attributable to a lack of knowledge of, or comfort with the spoken language required in the social situation.
When my son entered preschool he didn’t utter a single word the entire school year. His teachers had never experienced this before. Assessing him was tricky. You can’t expect a child with selective mutism to tell you the letters of the alphabet or answer any simple question verbally.
However, it never affected him socially with the other kids. He was well loved by everyone. I will never forget when a little boy in his class asked me, “Why doesn’t he talk?”
When I asked my son why doesn’t he talk in school he responded, “I don’t want anyone to hear me.” The kids were very well aware that my son was different, but they loved him anyway. That’s the beauty of preschool innocence.
Nonverbal Communication and Whispering
ASHA states that children with selective mutism avoid initiating and participating in conversations. If they are able to express themselves, they may rely on gesturing, nodding, pointing, or whispering. They may have fears of being ignored, ridiculed, or harshly evaluated if they speak.
This is true for my son. He often used non-verbal communication in his pre-K classroom. He would point to things and nod or shake his head. Also, he would whisper only to my husband and I if we were in larger social gatherings.
I will always be grateful for my friend’s 13-year-old daughter who seemed to bond instantly with my son. She was one of the helpers in his Sunday school class. She never pressured him to say anything and, in time, he started whispering to her. This is a big deal to a selective mute. This meant he trusted her and his anxieties lessened around her.
Selective mutism can be a challenge to explain to others. His teachers were so loving and very understanding of it and never pressured him to speak. That’s not always the case.
One of the pediatricians at a wellness visit kept saying to my son, “Use your words!”, and it only made my son that much more anxious.
I remember sending articles to a couple of my aunts to explain it because I didn’t want them thinking my son was rude at our next family event. They didn’t of course, but at least they were prepared and somewhat educated on the issue.
My tips on how to interact with a selective mute
1. Don’t ask them open-ended questions. Ask them yes or no questions instead so it gives them the option to communicate non-verbally by nodding or shaking their head.
2. Don’t pressure or bribe. This only feeds the anxiety. Don’t say things like, “If you tell me ____, I will give you ______.” You’ll just get blank stares, a pouty face and possibly some tears.
3. Approach them how you would with anyone else. A smile and greeting is fine, even if you don’t get a response from them. Hopefully they will become more comfortable with you and may start to communicate with you.
4. If they do start speaking to you, don’t make a big deal out of it. The less attention on their anxiety, the better.
Early intervention is key to helping a child with selective mutism. My son has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) for speech and social work. He started this before entering Kindergarten and it has helped him a lot. I also think we just lucked out with having the greatest Kindergarten teacher on the planet.
This year he speaks quietly in school to his teacher and classmates. He doesn’t always talk to other people in school or other places, so the anxiety is still there, but it’s getting better.
Selective Mutism certainly isn’t the end of the world, but anxiety isn’t pleasant to live with. It’s important to offer support to any child dealing with anxiety no matter what form it takes.
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