A SIlent Child

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Note: I wrote this article for a local magazine published in 2009 and am sharing it here five years on. This is one instalment in a series on selective mutism that I will be posting throughout this year.

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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-judgmental chorus as the supply teacher struggled to understand why I did not respond to the register.

I was always quiet. I was 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.

At twenty-one, a friend emailed me an interesting webpage, saying, “Doesn’t this sound like you?” 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, or SM, is now estimated to occur in seven out of every thousand children, making it several times as common as autism (according to studies by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry). This statistic floored me as I always supposed my situation to be unique. When recognised at a young age, it is often possible to desensitise the child to the environment that brings such anxiety, and to avoid future difficulties which become much harder to fix once the child reaches teenage years. When unexplained, others may feel – and express – frustration, suspecting the child of awkwardness.

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.

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 silence as bad behaviour not to be tolerated – what, after all, is so hard about speaking? My parents, both experienced professionals in different social-work-related 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.

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 allowances were made, 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?

The difference a diagnosis would have made is a subject I often ponder. Those who recognised a condition in those days would not have branded me a selective mute but an “elective mute”, horrible terminology used until the nineties, on the erroneous belief that silence is wilful. “Selective”, though it sounds similar, recognises distinctions between situations, without identifying silence as a choice. Before the change, the silence of an “elective mute” was believed to be 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. Many are suspicious of apparently new syndromes and question the diagnoses of children in far less confusing circumstances. When it becomes known that they are physically capable of speech in other settings, sufferers are still sometimes accused of belligerence and told their silence is manipulative or controlling, an appalling characterisation to present to a child. Awareness is crucial, since it is rare to find a professional with experience of SM and even now there will be many undiagnosed children. Nevertheless, recognition of SM is creeping into our culture – the TV series The Big Bang Theory features an SM character, and in 2001, Paul McCartney even wrote a song called “She’s Giving Up Talking”.

While the current advice is that it is rare for someone with SM to just grow out of it, I always believed that, logically speaking, 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. Ignorance and denial were my friends. My difficulty in speaking to “new” people diminished, and by the time I was a young adult 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, and now, with information available, it is vital that it reaches those who encounter this disorder, whether teacher, parent, or selective mute.

And now, for me?

My life has moved on from silence. Academia, after all, is a very speech-intensive world. I have taken language classes, argued in French with bureaucrats (ineffectively but joyously) and delight in giving tours to my overseas colleagues. I teach, present and discuss, a vocally demanding task if ever there was one, and absolutely love it.

I still hate using the phone sometimes, but I can live with that. There are still moments and hours of anxiety, as the underlying anxiety issue hasn’t gone away despite the gradual eroding of its favourite mode of manifestation. Having come so far, over nearly two decades, from complete silence, I have to appreciate the progress and look forward to better management of these obstacles.

But the reward for the rest of my progress is the incredulous laughter with which my friends receive my admission that I – I, of all people – was once mute. 

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