When kids need help to find their voice
As a kid, I suffered from selective mutism (an acute anxiety response that paralyses the vocal chords). In a nutshell, I couldn't talk in certain environments - namely, at school. At home, I was a 'normal' vibrate, talkative kid. It was just as though my voice shut down as I approached school each morning and didn't switch back on until I was on my way home and well clear of the school gates. I remember becoming so overwhelmed with anxiety at school that my whole body froze, my eyes were like a deer's in the headlights, unable to respond to anyone. Needless to say, experiencing selective mutism (sm) made for a challenging childhood and often a traumatic schooling experience. School was generally an unpleasant experience for me. I struggled to form and maintain connections socially and being unable to assert myself vocally, my grades suffered too. But the worst part was, I had no idea what was wrong with me. As I kid of the seventies and eighties, not much was known about sm in my day. My 'problem' was generally dismissed as shyness. But I always sensed there was something more to it. Eventually, I concluded that I was somehow innately defective. I was a weirdo. In a class of my own.
I was in my late fourties when I discovered the term 'selective mutism' for the first time. By chance, I had stumbled upon a facebook post and the words on the screen stopped me in my tracks. 'Unable to talk', 'Typically at school' and 'more than shyness'. As I read on, I realized that this was me. Finally, after all these years thinking that I was just 'wrong' somehow, here it was in black and white. My 'problem' was 'a thing'! - And other people had it! Naturally, I spend the proceeding days, weeks and months exploring information on sm. Story after story that resonated with me. I had been labeled 'the girl who doesn't talk' at school and finally at least, I felt less alone. There were others out there like me.
With new insight and clarity, I began writing about my experiences. It helped me make sense of my past. I also got thinking about kids who experience sm nowadays. I explored current treatments and approaches to managing sm and considered them through the lense of my childhood self.
While knowledge about the complex condition is still in it's infancy, thankfully, awareness is growing. Its so important that health professionals, educators, caregivers, and children understand what the experience is like for kids with sm. In the following paragraphs I respond to some of the current approaches used in assisting kids with sm.
Using commentary style talk
This really helps, even today as an adult. I appreciate people who do this. It reduces the length of those ghastly silent pauses. These pauses have a tendency to make me feel as though the onus is on me to talk. When someone else is taking care of filling in the silent space it reduces my anxiety profoundly. As a child, I highly valued people doing this too. Anything to take the focus off me. Anything to make me feel that there was no pressure for me to talk, that no one was waiting for me to talk. Its taken care of and I can relax. It’s in this space that I am more likely to contribute. It is also nice to feel a part of an experience wherein the focus is on what’s going on around us, sharing an experience with someone- focusing on an object, an activity, or just observing something together, as spectators. This makes me feel as though this person is enjoying my company. It makes me feel valued just for being me.
Asking rhetorical questions
This is a good technique too. This invites me into the conversation in a non-threatening way. For example, the person may comment; ‘Gee this is an interesting contraption. I wonder how it works’ pause (but only briefly) ‘Maybe if I do this…’ It is important to just keep the commentary flowing. It is also worthwhile being alert to any responses/contributions the sm child may offer, but don’t expect This. The aim is to maintain the flow.
These approaches provide a safe space and the result is that I am more likely to let my words out. The other advantage is that they promote a sense of inclusion for me. Even if I have said nothing, I feel as though I have been a real part of the interaction. It’s a nice feeling. It reminds me that my presence can be appreciated despite my inability to contribute verbally to the experience we have shared.
For me, an added bonus is when you can make me laugh. We love to be around people who make us laugh. This has extra value for the sm kid. Creating a relaxed, fun atmosphere reduces anxiety which makes it more likely that for the voice to be released. Do all the talking, joke around. We love it.
Get to know what really interests me and incorporate that knowledge into your encounters with me. Select activities that are in line with my interests. Use props that you know will spark my interest. I can tell you now that had a teacher taken me to a zoo or animal farm where we could interact with animals together the chances of my talking would have increased dramatically. Inject relevance at every opportunity.
I can manage a one-word answer. It is when there is an expectation for me to elaborate that I am in danger of seizing up. At school, I found that I could recite without too much trouble. Times tables, even reading aloud. Why? Because it wasn’t me talking. I was merely reading or reciting prescribed words. I loved French in first year high school. My Sm was still a problem for almost every subject but in French, I was able to contribute, out loud. Typically, this was possible when I was called upon to do so rather than volunteering. Nevertheless, when I was invited to speak and what I was speaking was prescribed. This provided me valuable opportunities to ‘be a talker’, have a voice. The pressure to conjure up something to say, be put on the spot to talk, is the where the danger lies. It results in raised anxiety and paralysis of the voice.
I think its really important for folks working with sm kids to be mindful that we are highly perceptive kids, smart. We are on to you. To succeed, you need to be an actor, manipulate to a degree. There is trickery involved, and it works. But beware, if there is the slightest hint that you are trying to fix us, your efforts will not only be futile but will compound negatively. This is a tricky one. I understand that there is value in acknowledging sm as a phobia. It is a phobia, similar to a phobia of dogs and it is helpful to normalize it in this way. I see value in helping the child understand the nature of their sm in this way and to involve them in the setting of goals to deal with it. But I think there is very fragile ground around this and we need to tread carefully. We need to do this in a way that maintains their trust, but perhaps most importantly, their feeling of acceptance. Approach with caution and sensitivity. it’s a delicate balancing act.
Avoid eye contact
Eye contact should be avoided. It makes a huge difference to me, even today. Sat side by side, I am more inclined to feel relaxed enough to talk. Placed directly opposite someone, the odds decrease significantly. Going out for dinner has always posed a dilemma for me. Seating needs to be considered carefully or the evening is doomed before it has begun. As a child I was hyper aware of my companion’s gaze. Even if they were sitting beside me, I was vigilant. I could sense immediately if their face was turned towards me. This caused discomfort and was not conducive to my talking. Best to play it safe and cast eyes outward. You can ask a closed question without turning to the person and waiting for the answer. It may not come naturally but it is worth considering. All these little things help reduce the anxiety response.
Praise is something that we need to be mindful of. It is a form of judgement. A kid can be feeling okay, starting to open up and then their companion says, ‘well done’. And boom. Closed for business. Well-meaning gestures such as this can have an adverse effect. It can turn what is a pleasurable and positive encounter / interaction into an abysmal fail. Worse than that, it can feel like a punch to the chest for the sm kid, reinforcing in her that she has this faulty part of herself that is always going to be the prominent part of her. The pleasant experience she had been a part of, suddenly shattered. It had been a delusion. I had one overriding wish as a kid….that people would just ignore my sm. I could be really starting to feel okay in someone’s presence and then they would ruin everything by illuminating my sm in some way. And that was the end of that. It was a sense of betrayal. I was disheartened, and reminded that I was different, yet again.
If you would like to read more about the do’s and don’ts for selective mutism, here is the link: https://selectivemutismcenter.org/dos-donts-for-interacting-with-those-with-selective-mutism/