When I was young I had no idea that Selective Mutism existed. I assumed I was ‘just shy’ and I also assumed that one day I would simply grow out of my shyness, and find it easy to share my voice with others just like everybody else.
I dreamed of the day I would cross that magical threshold – and of the ideas, questions and opinions I would be able to share when I got there.
Many times through the years I found myself looking in the mirror, shocked that I had grown so much older, but yet I still wasn’t able to share myself the way I wanted to.
It was very disheartening – being selective mute (and not knowing it) – and wondering when things would finally slip into place
Today I am given the benefit of hindsight. I am able to look back on my life, and understand a lot more about what was going on for me. I can understand, by looking through the lens of selective mutism, why it was so difficult for me to talk. I can make peace with my pain and frustrations, and much of the negative self-talk that went on inside of my head. I can even make peace with the judgments of other people.
I can look back and I can understand that selective mutism was extremely misunderstood at the time. It was understood, back then, that not-speaking was a choice that I made – and that if I wanted to I would be able to speak in any situation.
The problem is that today, many people are non-the-wiser
Beliefs such as ‘it is her choice to not-talk‘ and ‘he’ll grow out of it!‘ appear to be common-place. I can easily vouch for the lack of choice when it comes to not speaking in select situations. It simply isn’t possible to speak when your anxiety levels peak and your voice box goes missing in action. Sometimes it is easy to say some things, but not others. Sometimes the words come out, but they are strained or very quiet. Other times, no words will come at all.
My question is, given time, will these symptoms ease? As the selective mute child grows, is it possible that life will change these behaviours? Will the anxious behaviour naturally ease, allowing the voice to make a come-back?
I’d love to be able to say “Yes!” “Of course!” “In my experience it did!”
But it didn’t happen like that – so I asked the question in a Facebook group that has been set up for selectively mute adults.
“I haven’t grown out of it.”
“I didn’t grow out of it.”
“In my view … I didn’t out grow it, I fought against it. Wasn’t an over night thing, was a gradual thing and took years to get to where I am now.”
“I’m not entirely sure that I have grown out of SM 100%. I can speak to people but don’t like crowds, I hate speaking on the phone, and would no way be able to do any public speaking. By nature, I am a worrier and get anxious easily….. x”
I feel similarly. Initiating conversations, picking up the phone, certain situations … it is still difficult for me at times. I fought my ‘shyness’ after leaving school, and gradually found new ways to cope – and to hide my anxiety. This approach created its own difficulties for me, and my selective mute symptoms were simply replaced instead of removed. I only really began to improve once I began to embrace the person I am and the sensitive traits that make me.
Today I am in my mid-thirties, and occasionally I still struggle to find my voice – any voice – despite the fact that in most situations, even publicly, I speak easily
Despite the difficulties that we, and thousands of others, have faced in our struggle to find ease in expression I do believe that, given the right conditions, some people might appear to grow out of selective mutism. A change of conditions, such as school, class, teacher or area where anxiety levels some-how become lowered. A change in approach by the people around us. A change within ourselves, whereby we find it much easier to manage our anxiety. Something needs to change, but it needs to be the right kind of change …
“hypothetically speaking I think it may be possible to outgrow sm if it wasn’t for other people and their comments. I could clearly see with my own dd the time when it became an issue and she became self aware of it and that was when people started to highlight it. Without those comments, and being home educated , I do believe that her own self confidence may have naturally grown to a point where she might effectively outgrow it. However that did not happen and a more likely scenario is the ability to ‘overcome’ sm which I do believe is possible even without formal therapy, although obviously not for everybody.”
“It’s a myth ! … You cannot grow out of it, and those who say that a young child will do so do not understand the risk they are taking by not treating the mutism. Each child is different, some will overcome with their own desire, but the majority will only overcome SM when given the treatment, support and the environment they need. We hear so many say ‘I grew out of my SM’ but then we learn that yes, they did overcome SM but only after a change in their situation, something happened to reduce their anxiety. This might have been a house move, a new school, planned or even unplanned changes, but that is not the same as ‘reaching a certain age’.
Sometimes I wish I could go back to the many changes that my younger self faced and offer the little me the perspective I now own
I wonder if she would take it. I wonder if it would have helped her anxiety levels. I wonder how my life might have looked if the many moves and changes I went through in my first five years had been enough to ease my symptoms instead of increasing them.
There are many different ways we can approach selective mutism, but it is clear to me that ignoring it and expecting it to go away by itself is an approach that is unlikely to see success.
A selectively mute child is not ‘just shy’. They will not ‘grow out of it’ and we should not ‘give it time’
A selectively mute child needs your help to ease their anxiety. They need to be heard and acknowledged. If they cannot talk in a situation, they need you to understand that this situation induces huge anxiety for them, and they need these triggers to reduce.
Most selective mute people have gentle, sensitive personalities. We need a gentle, sensitive approach, both by ourselves and others, to help us to thrive. When it is given, it will indeed appear that we are growing out of our symptoms, but instead (I believe) we are finding a way to grow into ourselves.
Please feel free to share your thoughts below – I’d love to hear how you or a child in your life has been able to overcome aspects of their selective mutism!