October is Selective Mutism Awareness Month. I’m sharing my experience as part of a series of posts on travelling with anxiety.
A Silent Child
“She doesn’t speak in class.”
That’s how my ten-year-old classmates explained it. Not “she can’t speak”, not “she won’t speak”, just a matter-of-fact behavioural observation, uttered in a non-judgemental chorus as the supply teacher struggled to understand why I did not respond to the register.
I was always quiet. Before I even got out of hospital I became the midwives’ favourite infant for bathing demonstrations – I refused to cry in front of adults. I made them look good.
I was not physically incapable of speech. In fact, I was very talkative – to other children and to my immediate family. With others, I was trapped in silence.
A Late Diagnosis
At twenty-one, a friend emailed me an interesting webpage and I discovered “Selective Mutism”, a social anxiety-related disorder that renders the sufferer incapable of speech in certain situations. There is no physiological or developmental reason for their silence, but they experience a very real, almost physical barrier that occurs consistently.
Selective Mutism occurs in seven out of every thousand children. This means that it is even more common than autism. When recognised at a young age, it is sometimes possible to ease the anxiety through desensitisation. When unexplained, others may feel – and express – frustration, suspecting the child of rudeness.
What’s it like to have Selective Mutism?
Mute children are tremendously observant, and often have the measure of their adult interlocutors. Barely concealed impatience carries over, an unfortunate fact given the general lack of awareness that this disorder even exists. Crucially, for me, even after the anxiety factor subsided, there was always the silencing fear, soundly based, that any speech would lead to an anxiety-inducing fuss.
Selective Mutism at school
In my village primary school, everyone knew me. With imagination, and no pressure, my teachers helped me to move from silence to mouthing the words to whispering, so I was finally able to communicate verbally.
High school brought with it greater challenges and teachers who were less familiar with my problem, but it also brought choirs and new activities. Given the number of teachers I had during those six years, things went pretty smoothly.
There were, of course, moments of unvented frustration. There was an oral component to English, and while I was capable in the other areas, my teachers explained, without a recognised cause for my silence or being able to perform in front of the whole class, it was impossible to give me the highest scores for official purposes.
Yet even here teachers made allowances, and whenever oral presentation was required, I was able to present to a small group, in a quiet room at my own volume. Such a clear declaration that I was different often felt humiliating, but it was far better than the alternatives.
Tension, however, never dissipated. I came to dread the times when, lining up outside a classroom, the word would spread that we had a supply teacher. My silence was always an issue; every class involved taking a register. Invariably there would be a comment, though not always pointed. I saw most supply teachers add me to their mental “watch list”. Understandable, perhaps, but unfair.
Everyone had an opinion. Some who did not understand simply dismissed me.
I still get frustrated thinking of all I wish I could have said at the time.
“You don’t understand my silence, but neither do I.”
“Don’t punish me because you feel uncomfortable.”
And, above all:
“What makes you think that because I don’t speak I have nothing to say?”
Handling Selective Mutism
People react in various ways to a child who doesn’t speak. A common impulse is the wish to “take the situation in hand”. Many want to engineer some kind of breakthrough; well-meaning, perhaps, but their zeal can be difficult to cope with. Some see Selective Mutism as bad behaviour not to be tolerated – what, after all, is so hard about speaking?
My parents, both experienced social workers in different areas, received comments ranging from the critical to the bizarre. My violin teacher made a singing exam a personal quest. A playgroup teacher offered to take me to her house and scream at me until I spoke.
My favourite people were those who never made it an issue. No censure, no jokes; those who understood that silence did not render me invisible, nor did it prevent me from having a personality, and whose company allowed me to be myself, albeit silent. I especially liked those who discerned my sense of humour.
Intervention and prejudice
The difference a diagnosis of Selective Mutism would have made is a subject I often ponder. Those who recognised a condition in the eighties would not have branded me a selective mute but an “elective mute”. This horrible terminology used until the nineties, on the erroneous belief that silence is willful. “Selective”, though it sounds similar, recognises distinctions between situations, without identifying silence as a choice.
Before the change, psychologists believed that the silence of an “elective mute” was a bid for control. While I had no diagnosis, this does not differ terribly from the suggestions of the professionals who worked with me. That my parents were switched on and willing to endure criticism saved me repeatedly from blundering, ill-conceived attempts to help that were nonetheless genuine – merely misguided.
A diagnosis is no barrier to prejudice. When it becomes known that they are physically capable of speech in other settings, sufferers are still sometimes accused of belligerence. They are told that their silence is manipulative or controlling, a characterisation I find appalling to present to a child. Awareness is crucial since it is rare to find a professional with experience of Selective Mutism and even now there will be many undiagnosed children.
Nevertheless, recognition of Selective Mutism is creeping into our culture – the TV series The Big Bang Theory features a character with Selective Mutism, Raj, and namechecks SM more than once. In 2001, Paul McCartney wrote a song called “She’s Giving Up Talking” inspired by a girl with Selective Mutism.
While the current advice is that it is rare for someone with Selective Mutism to just grow out of it, I always believed that since I had difficulty with adults and people older than me, as I grew older there would be fewer and fewer people in the “problem” category. Here, ignorance and denial were my friends. My difficulty in speaking to “new” people diminished, and by the time I was sixteen, I would seem merely shy to those who did not know me in a school or family context.
My best guess is that a diagnosis would have helped to reassure me that I was not alone. Whether labelling my silence would have helped or hindered, whether it would have preserved it or robbed it of its power, I cannot say. But that is history, thankfully. Now, with information available, it is vital that it reaches those who encounter this disorder.
And now, for me?
My life has moved on from silence. I have taken language classes, argued in French with Parisian bureaucrats (ineffectively but joyously) and delighted in giving tours to my overseas colleagues. I have been a university tutor, a vocally demanding task if ever there was one, and absolutely loved it.
Even in my late twenties, there were some situations in which I had always been silent, and it was difficult for me to even imagine speaking. Having come so far over nearly two decades from complete silence, it was even more frustrating to attempt to carve out a role in this scenario.
Happily, a combination of medical treatment and psychology have helped me to a place where, in my thirties, I can not only function but thrive in settings where networking and conversation are central. Anxiety doesn’t just evaporate. I’ve had to deal with periods of difficult displaced anxiety and come up with new coping strategies.
But the reward for my progress is the incredulous laughter with which my friends receive my admission that I – I, of all people – was once mute.