'"Why don't you ever speak?" Why does it bother you why I never speak? Is what I wanted to call back, only I couldn't. The words were there, but buried deep, stuck in my throat like a dry bone and no matter how hard I tried to pull them out it still felt like nothing more than a paralysis to the throat.' (Quote from 'Slipping in and out of my Two Worlds') Selective mutism is a complex anxiety disorder in which an individual is unable to speak in select social settings. Since this disorder is one of the most misunderstood and misdiagnosed disorders about, you are probably thinking, Tah! A disorder for shyness? What next, a disorder for thinking? There is an excuse for everything these days! Selective mutism is an actual disorder which consumes, as estimated, 1% of the entire population's lives. Contrary to popular assumption, it is vocal chord paralysis due to muscle tension in the vocal chords. Sufferers can not speak any more than somebody can be persuaded not to feel pain during an injury. They are not 'selecting' when they want to speak, we must understand that they physically cannot owing to their severe anxiety.
As the author of 'Slipping in and out of my Two Worlds' and SMG (Selective Mutism Group) International Coordinator for London, despite having now overcome it, I have battled with selective mutism throughout my entire life. Living with selective mutism has not been easy. I have learned to deal with bullying (physical and verbal), loneliness, constant misunderstandings, depression, frustration, anger, and perhaps every other negative emotion one can experience! Given the incredible lack of general understanding of selective mutism and misdiagnosed sufferers, I was always viewed by teachers, professionals and others as being 'oppositional', 'defiant' 'stubborn' and 'extremely shy'. Growing up, my parents were always told, "She'll grow out of it, it's just a phase". For the true selectively mute, these labels are completely untrue. I would just like to emphasise the fact that children with selective mutism do not grow out of their muteness. The sooner it is diagnosed, the more likely they will overcome it. If left untreated, the mutism will become long term and entrenched and will be likely to lead to depression and social isolation in adult life. The behaviour becomes 'programmed'.
There are many disabling symptoms found in selectively mutes. Aside from the inability to speak in select social settings, which is usually based on expectation, they have difficulty engaging in eye contact and may display awkward and stiff body language - as if to obscure themselves as much as they can. Common characteristics also include inflexibility, temper tantrums, stubbornness, need for control, domination tendencies and extreme talkativeness from Infancy onwards. They may also have night terrors, trouble sleeping alone and have a very close attachment with the mother. There are, however, positive characteristics present among them too. Such characteristics include a high level of introspectiveness (understanding the world better than others their age), creative tendencies, the need to be expressive, high levels of empathy and a good sense of justice.
If you are a parent of a child with selective mutism or if you know somebody with this condition or have it yourself be sure to take a look at my book based on my life with this dreadful disorder. It is written in excruciating detail so if you want to know exactly what SM is like from a child's point of view, how they are feeling, what they are thinking and how I beat my SM, please do have a look.
'Slipping in and out of my Two Worlds follows the fascinating journey of a girl with the anxiety disorder, selective mutism. Based on a true story and written in the first-hand knowledge of a selective mutism sufferer, it is a unique story which will grip readers from all audiences. The story highlights the stark contrasts between her lives within and without of the school grounds, the nation's incredible ignorance towards the disorder, how to deal with selective mutism, and the harrowing consequences of it being left untreated. Captivate yourself with the distressing twists of bullying throughout the years, a near-death experience, how she spoke in front of hundreds of people whilst entrenched with the mutism, and how she, being the only person in the knowledge of her disorder, spoke out about it to a teacher. As well as an engaging read, it is therapeutic, most informative and of great interest when understanding the difficulties children are faced with when they have an actual fear of speaking.'
I am stunned at the lack of empathy from some people who do not understand this disorder. Even if the full description and diagnosis smacked them in the face, they would still be firm of opinion that "We are labelling everything and want to make everything a disorder these days.'' This disorder is very real to the sufferers who suffer in silence day in and day out and to their families, friends and people around them. Selectively mute children's anxiety is largely confined to situations where they are expected to talk. They may act far from shy when speech can be avoided. Many would argue that there is a fine line between general shyness and selective mutism. The important distinction between the two, however, is that the avoidance, persistence and intensity is far too intense for it to be perceived as just 'shyness.' Selectively Mute children are completely mute in settings in which they feel uncomfortable, and exhibit stubborn behaviour and usually don't smile, whereas a shy child would speak perhaps few, quiet words in response and slowly warm up to the situation. Selectively Mute children are also commonly known to be very boisterous and even excessively talkative in other situations where there is no direct expectation for them to speak. There is a huge difference between the two.
If you are dealing with a selectively mute child, educate teachers and other family members about the disorder. Explain that your child isn't insulting them nor are they autistic or exhibiting odd behavior. Make them understand that they're really scared to talk, because as parents, you are the most knowledgeable individual on SM at hand and the best hope the sufferer has. Also, the focus should not be about getting the child to talk, but reducing anxiety levels and developing confidence since the anxiety is the root of the issue. If these processes can be achieved verbalisation will eventually follow.
Do you know a child who speaks in some settings but remains mute in others? Do not dismiss it as shyness, for they could be suffering with selective mutism and need help.
For more information and support on SM, visit http://www.smira.org.uk/ a registered charity for SM in the UK.