Catherine, one our new Additional Needs Support Befrienders, shares her story of parenting a son with selective mutism.

Imagine you have a toddler, who though a little shy, is chatting away normally to family, friends and even local shopkeepers, but then clams up and is unable to talk to the staff at his pre-school.

Unable to ask for the toilet, ‘accidents’ happen, and his reticence to be away from home grows.

Perhaps it’s just separation anxiety? Perhaps with lots of love and careful support he’ll get over it and settle in nicely.
Imagine the anxiety when it doesn’t get better – in fact, it worsens …

By the time this little boy is at primary school he is unable to speak to anyone there; he won’t join in with PE or stand up with his classmates in assembly for the songs. Though he can read at home, he refuses to read for a teacher. He is given an ultimatum – ‘Read out loud or spend the Christmas party in the head teacher’s office’ – he misses the party.
The teachers believe that the issue is behavioural, that he is being manipulative. You know your son. You know he is not like that.

You breathe a sigh of relief when an Educational Psychologist (EP) is called in to assess him – but no real diagnosis is made, and no suggestions, solutions or strategies are offered. In desperation you turn to Google … ‘Why can’t my child speak at school?’

This is Catherine and Daniel’s story.

The google search led Catherine to the charity SMiRA and this definition:

‘Selective mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder in which a person who is normally capable of speech does not speak in specific situations or to specific people. Selective is used as a medical term to mean affecting some things and not others. It does not refer to selecting, as in making a choice.’

As soon as she read that, Catherine knew she had found a diagnosis! She learned that when a person with SM is anxious, the ‘freeze’ reaction tightens their vocal cords and prevents them from being able to speak. It wasn’t actually a choice for Daniel; he physically could not do it.

It is estimated that 1 in 150 children suffer with SM, many undiagnosed, but neither Catherine (a primary school teacher herself), nor any of the teachers at Daniel’s school had heard of it. Again, the EP was approached for support, as was Children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS), but nobody really knew how to treat it. CAMHS told Catherine, ‘We’re not sure what we can do for him if he won’t talk to us’!

Catherine began a quest to find out as much as she could and to pass the information on to the school. By now Daniel was happy in school; he had a few close friends, and with new staff now focusing on building a good relationship with him and gaining his trust without pressuring him to speak, they began to hear his voice.

Transition to secondary school was difficult, with a whole new staff team to educate and win over. Although he never really overcame SM while at school, there were some teachers with whom Daniel was able to hold a bit more of a conversation. One of these was a maths teacher who gave up his break times to work with Daniel. They would stand together at the whiteboard and look at a maths problem side by side, thus avoiding any eye contact. The maths became the focus rather than Daniel, and so his anxiety was reduced, enabling him to speak and talk through the maths problem.

SM is not just about speech but can affect all areas of communication. For example, Daniel found it hard to construct an essay despite having all the background knowledge of the topic. And anything that involved expressing feelings or opinions was impossible.

Thanks to his mum’s belief in him, his teachers’ willingness to patiently and kindly persevere to accommodate his needs, and his family’s consistent loving support, that little boy who was too anxious to speak has grown into a capable, confident young man. He still has underlying anxieties, but he has learnt strategies to cope with them. He has a job that he loves, working for an international charity … in the communications team!

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