I first heard the phrase “selective mutism” at my daughter’s ballet class. She and I were talking in the waiting room, and another girl from her class overheard us and exclaimed, “Amelia can talk???” As I had many times throughout my younger daughter’s three years of life, I calmly explained that she spoke quite freely with close friends and family but was a little shy in public settings.
The little girl’s mom, a teacher, said, “Oh, selective mutism?” to which I quickly, defensively replied, “Nope! Just shy!” But as the day went on, her words stuck in my head. My daughter had only recently begun attending preschool and ballet class, all public settings where it was becoming abundantly clear that she was either super-shy or something else was going on. She would speak to her peers in preschool but would never utter a word to a teacher or other grownups.
That day, however, was the first day I had ever heard the phrase “selective mutism,” and it started us down a path that would change the way we not only approached learning with our daughter but communicating with her as well.
According to a definition posted on selectivemutismcenter.org, selective mutism is defined as “a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children can speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.”
Our younger daughter was always quieter than her sister, “the mayor.” The good thing about having a big chatty sister was that she did all the talking for you in public. Don’t feel like saying “trick or treat?” No worries. Not in the mood to say “thank you” when receiving something from a stranger? Big sister’s got you!
But that day in dance class put a potential name to something that was happening with our sweet baby girl. After a brief consultation with our pediatrician (and a whole lot of Googling), we learned that selective mutism wasn’t that common, and not too many child psychologists in our area were well versed in this diagnosis and treatment. On top of this, all of these puzzle pieces started to come together in the spring of 2020.
As the world was shutting down, our eyes opened up to this new layer to our girl. We were lucky enough to find a wonderful child psychologist who, through many zoom sessions (because, pandemic!), armed us with exercises and techniques to work with our daughter to open up her communication barriers.
Since that fateful day in ballet class, we have made many strides, but we are nowhere near out of the woods. Selective mutism isn’t an easy diagnosis, nor does it have an easy fix. Amelia speaks a mile a minute at home but utters not a word in school unless one of her “comfort people,” as I’ve taken to call her inner circle, are present. She will not speak to her teachers but will occasionally whisper to a peer.
That being said, there are times she completely surprises us. At her first Girl Scout meeting, she was the first Daisy to raise her hand and share in the “share circle.” And recently, when asked to pick a color at school, she whispered “light pink” so quietly her classmates heard but not the teacher. I was told the children were SO EXCITED.
I feel like we are making small steps towards making her feel comfortable enough to speak to her teachers with no hesitation or anxiety, but it’s hard. This diagnosis has opened our eyes to the many dangers of the world of a child who does not easily communicate. If she’s ever lost in public, will she be able to tell someone her name or our names and phone number? No, we know she will not, so we purchased ID bracelets with our information for her to wear in large settings while never letting go of her hand.
She has expressed wanting to have play dates and sleepovers at friends’ houses, but if she doesn’t express to the adult in the house if she needs something, these things are not in the cards right now. The good news is she HAS gone on a few play dates with her big sister at a trusted friend’s house, where she was comfortable enough to talk to everyone in the house. It’s wonderful to see her progress and incredibly frustrating when she won’t respond to her teacher for any verbal work in class. All of this being said, each child has their individuality and personality, and her selective mutism is just a small part of who she is.