By Chris Croll
This column about a 15-year-old girl with selective mutism is one in a series of columns that profiles children who have conditions, diagnoses or temperaments that require specialized support from parents, teachers, coaches, therapists, friends, family members and other influential people in their lives. The goal of these profiles is to elicit greater empathy from the community for these “high-needs” children and their families.
Croll: What is Selective Mutism?
Sarah: A childhood disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak in select social settings where the child feels anxious. Selective mutism is not a behavior issue or a refusal to speak; it is a physical inability to speak that some children experience when they feel stressed.
Croll: When did you realize this was an issue with your daughter?
Sarah: My daughter was very talkative as a toddler but at age 3, she stopped speaking to adults. We assumed she was just being shy, but as the years went on, it became an issue. I found that I was having to re-teach her the school curriculum each night because she hadn’t understood parts of it during the school day and she wasn’t able to ask the teacher for help. We realized this was more than just shyness. We first heard the term “selective mutism” when another family member was diagnosed with the disorder. At the time, our daughter was in seventh grade. Because she performed well academically in the younger grades, and she was cute, she had always been the teacher’s pet. By middle school, she was still getting very high grades, but it became necessary for her to advocate for herself and it was clear she couldn’t do it.
Croll: How does her exceptionalities impact her ability to be successful academically and socially?
Sarah: My daughter’s self-esteem suffered from her condition because some of these type-A teachers would try to force her to speak in class. They wanted compliance because they knew she was bright. In English class, for example, they had to do a peer review and afterwards, the kids had to print out their papers. My daughter didn’t know how to print but because she wasn’t able to ask for directions; she just sat quietly at her desk. The teacher marched over to her and chided her for not following directions. My daughter just shut down. I received an email about her “misbehavior” that evening. The sad part is, that teacher knew about my daughter’s challenges because the teacher had attended meetings where we discussed this issue. The teacher just didn’t accept it as a real disability.
Croll: What are some of the unique parenting challenges you face?
Sarah:People don’t seem to understand that my daughter is doing her best. Teachers and family members say, “She needs to advocate for herself!” but that’s like asking a person who is missing their hands to go pick up a pencil. How can she advocate for herself when her very issue is her inability to communicate?
Croll: What are some of the challenges your child faces from being different?
Sarah: My daughter’s self-esteem has suffered tremendously because she has been bullied by teachers who don’t understand her. Fortunately, we are now finding great resources to help her. One of the best things to help her issue has been dog therapy. When you are training dogs, you must speak up or they don’t listen. So that has helped a lot. She is also babysitting her nieces and that is helping her to get comfortable using her voice. She has discovered a love for computer programming and she has been offered some exciting internships in that field. All of these are helping to build her self-esteem back up which will help her better manage the anxiety.
Croll: What type of education environment does your child attend?
Sarah: She is now in a combination of homeschool, online classes, individual classes and self-directed learning. Colleges are looking for diversity in student learning styles and experiences, so we are optimistic about her academic future.
Croll: How do you think your child is perceived by others?
Sarah: They probably think she is very quiet and shy. She had trouble making friends for many years but now that her confidence is developing, she is starting to form deeper friendships.
Croll: What would you like others to understand about your child and others like her?
Sarah: I wish people would remember these are children. Everyone learns differently. We need to make space for all types of learners in the classroom. This is America and we need a society that is open-minded.
Chris Croll is a parenting consultant specializing in educating and raising gifted and twice-exceptional children. She leads the National Center for Gifted Services (NationalCenterforGiftedServices.com) and the nonprofit Loudoun County Parents of Gifted Students (LoCoPOGS.org).