So, a while ago, I was substitute teaching in a middle school classroom. The class I had was a Special Needs Cross-Categorical teacher. Most of the classes were small, which was a relief. The students in the program were placed there because they needed math intervention.
The last class had 7 students. The boys arrived first and proceeded to tell me about their classmate Dana. They said that Dana didn’t and probably couldn’t talk.
This spurred memories of when I was in school. Kids would say the exact same thing about me, that I didn’t talk. I hadn’t understood how people could say this. Of course I could talk! I just talked when it was necessary.
I had, at that point, evaluated my problem. People just needed to be nicer to me (kids and teachers included). I concluded that people just needed to be nice to Dana and try to include her.
Dana showed up a couple minutes later. I said “hi” to her, and she stared back at me.
The kids worked through math packets for the duration of the period. I sat across from Dana and worked on the math packet with her. I asked her some questions. All she did was stare back at me. This was somewhat peculiar. How was it that she couldn’t even answer a simple yes-or-no question?
Yet, Dana interacted with her classmates. As I was watching her interact with her classmates, I noticed that when something was funny, she would laugh (not surprisingly). What was intriguing was that when she laughed she would make no noise at all. She would simply open her mouth and silently chuckle. Her laugh was completely silent.
I remembered doing this as a kid. When I was at home my family said I laughed like a chipmunk. But anywhere else, I was self-aware enough to know I made no noise when I laughed.
When the class ended, I approached one of the other teachers in the hallway. “So, Dana doesn’t talk,” I said.
The teacher confirmed my observation. “No, Dana has selective mutism. We don’t make her talk.”
This baffled me. I’d never heard of selective mutism before. I initially thought it might be autism. “What’s so funny is I was like that,” I told the teacher.
“Really!” the teacher said, both amazed and in disbelief.
After getting home, I looked up the definition of selective mutism. It’s a type of anxiety disorder that inhibits a kid’s ability to speak in certain social situations. I searched for more information on the disorder and stumbled upon several websites devoted to providing information about mental health. The web articles all shared the same facts about the disorder:
Facts about Selective Mutism:
- Eye-contact avoidance
- Kids avoid making eye-contact with other people. Instead, when spoken to, they will look away often turning their gaze downward.
- Inability to speak in school and other social situations
- Children will be able to speak freely at home, but not talk at school or in other social environments.
- Use of nonverbal communication
- Children will use nonverbal forms of communication rather than speaking such as facial expressions, head-nods, hand gestures, etc.
- Shutting down
- Kids will appear to shut down or become paralyzed in social situations. They often respond with a deer in-the-headlights look when spoken to.
- Excessively shy
- Kids are extremely shy and withdrawn from other people.
- Clingy to parents
- Kids are often afraid to leave their parents or be apart from familiar people.
- Resistant or stubborn
- Children will become resistant or stubborn to change or other risks. They will feel uncomfortable leaving their comfort zone.
Universal Experiences of Kids with Selective Mutism
I wanted to find more information about the disorder. I turned YouTube and searched for information about selective mutism. My search led me to videos of young adults talking about growing up with the disorder. I also came across videos therapists who are certified to treat selective mutism speaking of the experiences children will have. There were so many feelings and experiences that I could directly relate to:
Inability to speak up in school to use the bathroom
Even something as basic as asking my teachers to use the bathroom was terrifying to me. When I was in first grade, my teacher was reading a book to the whole class. I was doing the potty dance on my knees during this time. My teacher asked if I needed to go to the bathroom. The idea of my classmates staring at me as I walked to the door terrified me even more than my need to pee. So I shook my head “no.” I ended up peeing my pants that day, which humiliated me.
I continued to have trouble asking to use the bathroom, even into my high school years. The idea of having my classmates watch me as I walked to the door was more frightening than using the bathroom. I remember as a high schooler sitting in my classes, desperately waiting for the bell to ring because I was on the verge of peeing my pants. I avoided drinking water during the day so I didn’t have to use the bathroom.
Not being able to eat in front of people
Growing up, I was uncomfortable having to eat in front of my classmates. My embarrassment increased as I got older. In high school, there were a couple field trips that I opted out of in my calculus class. My peers were supposed to eat at a restaurant after the field trip, and I dreaded having them see me eat my food.
There were also a couple classes in which we made food. One of the experiments we did in my high school chemistry class involved making ice cream. I took my bag of ice cream with me to my next class as I had barely enough time to finish the experiment. But threw it away because I didn’t want any of my peers to see me eating it.
Inability to speak up to get a drink of water
Similar to my fear of using the bathroom or eating, I had a fear of getting water during the day. I ended up not drinking water anyway so I didn’t have to use the bathroom. The idea of having my classmates stare at me as I walked across the classroom was more daunting than replenishing my thirst.
Not being able to get up to sharpen my pencil
I had trouble sharpening my pencils as a student. I couldn’t stand the thought of walking to the pencil sharpener in front of my peers. And the loud noise that the pencil sharpener only heightened my fear.
Inability to ask teachers for help on assignments
I remember sitting in classes, especially as a middle schooler and high schooler, struggling with the assignments teachers gave. My fear of drawing attention to myself made it impossible to ask for help on assignments. So, I would sit at my desk and stare at the problems that gave me trouble. This caused me to become even more confused about the content.
Feeling uncomfortable moving around too much
For fear of drawing too much attention to myself, I had a fear of moving around. I would sit in my desk facing straight forward and avoid even the slightest movements such as turning my neck to look across the room. In hindsight, this probably drew even more attention to myself.
Being uncomfortable sneezing or blowing my nose
In the same vein that I couldn’t bring myself to use the bathroom, I avoided blowing my nose or sneezing during the day. If I felt a sneeze coming, I learned to press the bridge of my nose, and that would stifle the sneeze. I did this effectively every time I had to sneeze.
I remember that there were many settings that I would laugh silently in rather than out loud. This wasn’t a conscious thing that I did. Rather, my fear of being heard was so ingrained into my existence that I just laughed silently. This was especially when I was around extended family or familiar friends.
Not wanting to change my routine or clothing style
Every time I established a routine or style for myself, I avoided changing it so as not to have people make comments. This included my clothing style and the way I did my hair. When I was in middle school, I started wearing my hair down in 6th grade. Because this is how people saw me on my first day of school, I wore my hair down every single day in middle school. At the start of high school, I put my hair back in a pony-tail. After my classmates saw me with my hair back the first week of school, I wore my hair back for the rest of high school.
Not being able to tell people what I needed and waiting for others to notice my needs
I found it difficult to tell teachers and classmates when I was hurt or needed help. There was a time in my calculus class when we were told to divide up into groups to work on an assignment. My group of friends were absent that day, and I had nobody to work with. I watched silently as every other kid joined their group of friends. I sat in my chair, shaking my leg in frustration, and physically unable to talk. I was on the verge of tears until one classmate asked me to join her group.
Being very observant
I prided myself in my school years at being a very observant kid. I liked to observe other people and what they were doing. I felt as if I was able to observe people’s motives and intentions pretty well. I had a great sense of what people were like and who they were friends with. In fact, being able to observe the situations made me feel much more comfortable.
Going blank when asked a question
When I was asked a question, I remember literally going blank in my head. I couldn’t think of an answer. In fact, there were no words that I was able to think of when someone spoke to me. I was so taken aback and in a state of almost shock that I was left unable to think when spoken to.
After hearing so many different people’s experiences with selective mutism, I felt convinced that this was something I’d grown up with. The experiences and feelings that other people shared mirrored exactly what I dealt with as a kid. Additionally, the motives the young people shared behind not talking were exactly what I feared (drawing attention to oneself).
Hearing therapists certified in treating selective mutism speak on the disorder felt like someone had done a case study on my childhood. Except nobody had ever evaluated me as a kid. I felt so validated as a person, that it wasn’t random or unthinkable for me not to speak growing up.
I realize that self-diagnosing oneself can be controversial. And it is not my intention to either promote self-diagnosing or to pathologize my own self. But in the case of learning about selective mutism, everything about it felt so relatable as if I had lived through the exact
experiences described by others.
For me, finally knowing that there is a disorder that exists that can explain my feeling and decisions gave me a sense of peace. I’d already deduced that I had some issues in social situations. I had also attempted to follow a couple different career paths only to face many challenges in learning the content and skills. My self-diagnosis of selective mutism alleviated much of my guilt in making various mistakes. And it also gave me some answers as to how to handle upcoming challenges.