It’s been two years since I shared my family’s journey with selective mutism. I remember how nervous I was when I decided to write about it. Not only did it make me feel a little exposed, as I was putting my younger daughter’s struggles out for the world to see, but I also wasn’t sure if I’d do the situation justice.
I’m not an expert. I’m not a doctor. I’m just a mom trying to help her daughter. But all my fears fell to the side when my story was posted. It was read, shared, and discussed. People from my past who I hadn’t spoken to in years contacted me, sharing their stories, their fears, and their triumphs.
And so here I am, two years later, ready to share our update.
One thing I noticed throughout our journey was that my daughter would speak to people (adults and children, but specifically strangers) when it was least expected. When no one was paying attention or had any expectations. Like, every cast member at Disney World! And, a few kids she met on a spring break cruise!
These were people who didn’t know her history and didn’t have the expectation that she wouldn’t speak when they talked to her. So she did!
It was amazing to see, and it gave us little glimmers of hope that she was coming into her own and would hopefully start speaking at school.
The lack of communication at school was the most frustrating and challenging for us.
As she’s moving through elementary school, her refusal to communicate in the classroom has significantly hindered her learning which is a concern for us all. However, one bright spot as the years go on is that my daughter is getting older and maturing, and we can have conversations with her regarding how not communicating with her teachers could be making things more difficult for her learning. Also, she’s able to express to us why she is hesitant to communicate so we can work through it together.
One of her big “whys” of not speaking was since she hadn’t, the expectation was that she wouldn’t speak, and she was concerned people would “scream” if she did. I get it. She doesn’t want a fuss.
But she started testing the waters. A whisperer here and there, and all was calm. Our favorite thing to do when she speaks to a new person is to ask her, “And did they explode?” and she always laughs and says, “No….” That breaks the ice of expectations.
By the end of first grade, with the help of a very specific red “phone,” as we called it, she started whispering to her teacher. It was the breakthrough we needed, and she would use this device to whisper when necessary to her teachers. It hid her mouth so people couldn’t see it moving, and it kept others from hearing, so only the intended recipient of those words would hear. And eventually, she stopped using the “phone.” Still whispers, but testing at school and communicating in general became easier. We were so proud and knew we were onto something. So this past summer, I took a chance, and it really paid off.
My daughter’s school was being rebuilt, and in the fall, she would start second grade in a new building. I took it as an opportunity to say, “New school, new rules!” because in the old building, the expectation was that she was the kid who didn’t speak, and that became a habit for her.
But now, with a new building and new classrooms, I felt like maybe she could see it as an opportunity to start over. So, we spent the summer keeping an eye on the construction, and when the school offered a tour of the new space, we jumped at the opportunity. That tour proved that “new school, new rules” was in full effect.
As we walked through the halls, her excitement overshadowed any trepidation about the new environment. And as we finished our tour and walked back to the entrance, the principal stopped us and asked my daughter, very casually, what she liked best about the new school. Without hesitation, she replied, “The cafeteria,” and launched into a whole conversation about the new school and everything she loved. The principal and I locked eyes, and I started crying. When my daughter walked away, I hugged that principal for longer than was socially acceptable, for sure, but I knew it was the start of something big for my daughter.
Now, I won’t tell you that moment ripped the band-aid off, and my daughter is a non-stop talking machine at school. But day by day, there is more communication. With her teachers, with her friends, and with support staff throughout the building! Every week, someone new comes up to me to tell me how happy they are that my daughter spoke to them that day.
I’m so proud of her, and she’s proud of herself, too! So many years of being frustrated by not being able to express herself at school, now finally (on her own terms, in her own way) she’s finding her comfort level.
Perhaps in a few years, I’ll have another update, and this whole journey will be behind us; I’m not sure. But what I do know is, for other frustrated families out there, time, space, comfort, and partnership with our child have made all the difference, and I hope it will for you, too.