The New York Times has published a moving story, The Child Who Would Not Speak a Word, about a childhood psychological condition called selective mutism. Normally, I don’t read the Health and Psychology pages of the Times, but something about this opening passage resonated with me:
Christine Stanley will never forget the call. Two weeks after her daughter Emily started kindergarten, the teacher phoned in a panic. Emily would not color, sing or participate in any classroom activities; in fact, she would not say a word to anyone.
It was not the first time Christine had received such a call. Emily had not talked at preschool, either. She did not make eye contact with store clerks or talk to nurses at the pediatrician’s office. She ran off the playground if another child approached.
I can’t exactly say that in my childhood I was as cripplingly shy as this, but damn near close. When I started 2nd grade, I moved to a new school in Garnerville, NY. I must’ve been incredibly stressed or paralyzed with fear. Every child in the school sat in chairs in a large room and the teacher called roll and asked each child to say their name. The closer she got to me the more frightened I became. When she called my name I said nothing. She called my name again. Again, I said nothing. I somehow felt disembodied as if I wasn’t there in the classroom but rather was somewhere hovering above it. I knew what I was doing in remaining mute was odd. But I just couldn’t enter that public arena among such a large group of children I didn’t know.So that’s how I know that I had selective mutism.
I can also remember walking with my dad down the street of his hometown, Haverstraw, NY. When he would meet a friend of his who was a perfect stranger to me I would run behind him in fright.
My father taught high school social studies and I attended kindergarten in a building next door to the high school. This meant that I got to share lunch with him in the teacher’s lunchroom. Once in the high school lobby a student photographer came up to my dad and wanted to take a photo of me. I refused. I couldn’t stand the idea of posing for a photograph as it seemed to mean exposing oneself to the cold eye of the camera.
My 3rd grade teacher arranged for me to see the school psychologist probably because she sensed there was something wrong with a child so painfully shy. But being sent to a psychologist (I had absolutely no idea what one was) was in itself a traumatic experience especially as no one had prepared me for meeting him or told me why I was meeting him. After I told my mother about the session, she stopped them. I’m sorry she did.
The Times story describes selective mutism in this way:
At home, they behave like typical children, but in social situations, especially at school, they are silent and withdrawn. They might talk to grandparents but not to other relatives; they might whisper to one other child, or talk to no one. Some do not point, nod or communicate in any other way.
…Selective mutism is more a result of temperament than of environmental influences…Children with the disorder are not just shy; they were actively anxious. "We ended up concluding that the kids had social anxiety disorder."
The article also notes that up to 7 children in 1,000 have the condition making it far more common than autism. Selective mutism is commonly misunderstood or even ignored. Most parents with such a child might ascribe the condition to a severe case of shyness and take no further action. But it is treatable and such treatment can do much to alleviate the crippling fears of its vicitms. If it remains untreated, then the child can suffer such anxiety for their entire life.
The Times’ Harriet Brown, who wrote this story, delves into the psychological underpinning of the disorder:
One of the most puzzling aspects of selective mutism is the fact that children stay silent even when the consequences of their silence include shame, social ostracism or even punishment. This paradox may be explained by the fact that at the heart of the disorder is the instinct for self-preservation, the natural urge to avoid frightening situations.
"They…avoid…social interactions," said Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum of Philadelphia. "They don’t know how to engage. They learn to avoid eye contact; they learn to turn their heads. They learn not to communicate."
Experts say that may be because the children [are] in a state of physiological defensiveness brought on by the perception – real or imagined – that they are in danger.
"These children pick up cues in the environment that trigger an adaptive response, which puts them either into a fight-or-flight situation or leads to a shutdown," said Dr. Stephen Porges, director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Their bodies have said, ‘This is not the place you should be in.’ Their behavior is not defective, just adaptive in the wrong setting."
Currently, the most common treatment involves taking Prozac along with undergoing behavioral or cognitive therapy. The class of drugs of which Prozac is a member generally helps release inhibitions making them useful in treating social anxiety.
Needless to say, in 1960 no one knew anything about selective mutism and I received no treatment for it. I wish I had. No child should have to suffer through what I did.
For further information, visit the Selective Mutism Foundation website.