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Info: mutism

Info: mutism (Selective Mutism, SM), what it ISN’T and what it IS

A person with SM has the physical ability to speak.

They can’t always speak.

SM is considered relatively rare.

I believe you can usually tell by the age of just over two whether or not a person has it. Or at least that’s when you start to suspect it, if it’s there.

A person with SM may talk fluently ‘one on one’ and upon the next time encountering the same person, they are mute beyond their willful control. Maybe the environment is different, anxieties are high, or there are are more than a few people in the room and it isn’t just one-on-one. It’s puzzling to the person who may think,

“She talked to me last week. What an interesting conversation we had. And today I get the cold shoulder. Mutism Schmutism. She’s just plain rude.”

But ask the person with the selective mutism (SM) and you will have a different interpretation of the situation:

“One on one I was ok last week, talking to so and so in a quiet kitchen nook, just us two. The thoughts and ideas just…flowed. Today I did not expect to see this person; and in a roomful of people, no less. She kept introducing me to them and–in this situation–my voice was like a runaway elevator falling down my throat. I couldn’t call it up. Physically I felt unable to utter the tiniest of sounds. I’m not shy and I’m not rude…Another failed attempt at communication. I was OK last week and I don’t choose to be this way but it is lifelong. I have been this way, communicating with a handful of people my whole life. Anything more seems un-doable.”

This from C.W. “Being unable to speak when one wants to, leaves one so vulnerable. I become pretty good at avoiding social interaction as a matter of self-preservation.”

Perhaps the school can make it easier for the child.

Maybe once a child is known to have SM, someone can come to the school and speak to the class about it. I highly reccomend that as being therapeutic. Beware: The child may not think that!!! I would have felt singled out, even mortified. One thing I can tell you about SM sufferers, and they do suffer, is they don’t want to be singled out and have attention drawn to them. But as a parent, I can say now that I’m pretty sure it would’ve helped in the long run. Particularly if the SM speaker addressed a younger grade school class. Personally, I suffered humilities as a result of other children not understanding SM. I had fingers waved in front of my eyes: “Is there anyone in there?” One boy would hold up a sign daily that read:

Are you deaf? Dumb? Or just stupid?

Remember, people with selective mutism AREN’T JUST ‘SPOILED’ OR STUBBORN or get this: painfully shy. Wrong.

Anxiety may be an underlying cause. Some persons, moreso than others are prone to it. They say Paxil has helped some. It didn’t help me. For one thing, I DEPEND on art and writing because other communication so often fails me and also because it has been a way to earn revenue, something everyone needs. What professionals won’t tell you (not even in those ads on TV) and it’s something they damned well should tell you is this:

most antidepression meds or SSRI’s take away your creativity. I won’t have that.

SM can come about temporarily in some cases with children who are of another ethnic heritage, such as a child who speaks fluent Spanish in the home and then is thrust into an all-English learning environment in school. When they learn the new language, the SM subsides and doesn’t recurr.

In some cases, a child who speaks and participates in a home and school environment may SUDDENLY acquire SM as a result of severe trauma like abuse, violence and the like. I’ve had a bit of that as a lot of us do, but my SM (yeah I own it) was there. Always. And before any trauma.

In my case neither trauma nor language barrier “caused” SM. Rather, mine was there from the get-go.

There is a genetic component in play.

There are early interventions for SM and I cannot tell you whether or not they work because I did not have them as a child. Remember I have dual diagnoses of being on the spectrum AND having lifelong selective mutism. But there were no ‘interventions’ for me.

Some children are video taped speaking and their voices are played back to them; analyzed and discussed. This is called “Shaping.” The thought of it horrifies me.

There are therapies involving gaining the child’s trust, getting on a one to one speaking term with him/her, then gradually adding one person quietly to the room and repeating the same approach. This has a name: “Stimulus Fading Technique” and I warn you...if you’re trying this on someone, don’t tell them it’s some gimmick to get them to speak. That just puts more pressure on them, and thusly the anxiety is piled on to perform. Since the anxiety is there already you won’t succeed. As soon as they’re on to you, either child OR adult, forget it. It will fail. They will think they were being “tricked”. It’s a catch 22, isn’t it? Your intent must be pure and genuine; sincerely with a motivation to help. They’ll sense it if it isn’t, believe that.

“Systematic Desensitization Technique”

is different than fading technique (I abhorr the term technique but this is the term) in that it involvesa gradual desensitization of anxiety-provoking stimulus. For example, start with notes, e-mails, texting, etc. Move on to phone chats, small short face to face meetings, etc. etc. until supposedly you’ve gradually become familiarized with a person to the extent to which speaking becomes fluent because of the gradual exposure. Personally, one of my most meaningful relationships was with my deaf Grandma (which I write about in Under The Banana Moon) who communicated to me with glorious notes! When I met my husband, we “spoke” at first through the passing of long letters and eventually built on that. However SM does not go away and if I spent time away from him I had to rebuild familiarity as if from square one.

Whatever you do,

be an unconditional support. DON’T act surprised or shocked if the person with SM is speaking. That is insulting and is like congratulating a dog for learning something new. Be supportive in respectful ways. Acceptance is crucial, even though it may not be easy. As you can see, I don’t believe in so-called “Contingency Management”

whereby the person gets a reward for speaking. Even as a child that would’ve bugged me. I only wanted to be normal, and guess what? I WAS normal for someone with SM. I didn’t know others had it too, and children should be told that what they struggle with has a name. I think they will feel less alone and anxiety can only lessen when someone knows they do not struggle alone.

Positive thinking and cognitive therapy, in my opinion are BIG helps. They require work, but what doesn’t?

Don’t downplay the seriousness of selective mutism.

Personally, I turned to drugs and alcohol and it was NOT a remedy. I ended up in a coma. I don’t reccommend these routes. Why add to your stressors and complicate life? Avoidance can become a means of self preservation. It leads to isolation. It is hard for others to not take it personally. To this day, some family members have never heard my voice. I’m pretty sure they won’t. Don’t give a friend or family member a book on “How to overcome shyness.” Not only is that insulting but it will not eradicate SM. If it were that easy I’d have done it long ago, believe me I’ve cried buckets over certain situations where what I wanted to say went unsaid. I can’t go back in time and say those things. I was physically unable to do so at the time. I refuse to berate myself for it though, but I struggle with not doing that.

Self Acceptance is a worthwhile goal.

Kids do not necessarily outgrow it, and may seek “help” as adults. But how to help?

Respect. Educate. Understand. Practice tolerance. Be a support in all those ways. And don’t be offended if your wedding, or shower or party invites are turned down repeatedly! It’s not personal. Click book image to view info on this informational book.


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Life's Idiosyncratic Observations. Reflection, with an Asperger's viewpoint. A great WordPress.com site

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