by Louis Chesney
Being quiet as a child kept me safe and served a purpose for me at the time. However, it became counterproductive as social, educational, and occupational demands and expectations changed. Through experience and conscious effort I broke the silence, revealed my voice and continued to show more of it. I now communicate at any level within my professional and personal life. Here is my story.
To start with, I grew up in a middle-class home and attended public elementary school and middle school followed by a private Catholic high school. As a student, I was bright and learned with very little difficulty. I performed well academically. However, being reserved, I did not interact with other students. One of my earliest memories was spending recess roaming around the elementary school playground alone. Sometimes I would go through the motions of participating in a game without saying a word. I also have memories of high school that involved me walking through the hallways regularly without uttering a word or acknowledging anyone else. From an outside perspective, my school environment seemed, in the very least, non-oppressive. I was rarely bullied, but I did sometimes receive hurtful comments. Nevertheless, I avoided situations where I was expected to speak, as I only felt comfortable being taciturn around other students. The truth was that I had a paralyzing phobia of expressing myself and my way of coping with it was to stay silent. Deep down, I feared being criticized or being called derogatory names. Therefore, I carved out and then perpetuated my persona as the “quiet kid.”
Even though I suffered at school, I did speak and express myself with ease at home and with the kids in the neighborhood. Therefore, I found it disconcerting how my behaviors were shaped by the social setting I found myself in: talkative at home and mute in school. It was not until my very early 20s that I realized I suffered and was recovering from Selective Mutism as a child.
According to Selective Mutism Association, Selective Mutism is best understood as a childhood anxiety condition characterized by a child or adolescent’s inability to speak in one or more social settings (e.g., at school, in public places, with adults) despite being able to speak comfortably in other settings (e.g., at home with family).
Early last year, I reached out to the Selective Mutism Association to share my personal experience and insights on how I overcame SM. At the time, I was already in my early 30s and speaking comfortably for many years. Soon after the consultation with the board of directors of SMA, I met with the faculty of the Speech-Language-Hearing Science Department of La Salle University. At the university, I was brought to a formal meeting with the faculty where they documented my story and my approach to recovery. The information they gathered from me will be the subject and focus of a professional journal article to be published this year.
To further my advocacy, late last year, at the Selective Mutism Association’s annual conference, I participated on a panel discussion with other people who recovered from SM as children. We each shared our perspective on SM with professionals and parents and answered questions they had. My message gave hope to parents that, with treatment, their children could grow up to live happy and successful lives. I made them aware that I battled SM into late adolescence because it was not recognized as my diagnosis. I overcame it on my own. Fortunately, treatment has come a long way in 20 years and the Selective Mutism Association is committed to providing information about SM. If you believe your child or student has Selective Mutism, please contact the organization for information.
From reflecting on my own experience, this is what I believe helped me.
It was helpful when my parents engaged in special interests and hobbies one-on-one with me. It was also beneficial when another child/peer outside of school (such as a family friend or cousin) came to play with me. Having a sensitive and kind similar-age peer to play with was something I really looked forward to.
It was good practice when adults boosted my confidence by acknowledging and congratulating me on specific accomplishment and, when my teachers did so without requiring me to speak.
Relaxation techniques and vocal exercises helped me alleviate the physical tension I felt in social settings. The Linklater Voice Technique taught me useful breathing mechanics and vocal techniques. Despite having overcome Selective Mutism, I needed physiological intervention to help me gain vocal control in public and institutional settings.
It was also beneficial when my teacher displayed a little less authority and more humility and even vulnerability to me by exposing some imperfections or even basic social fears. They showed me the human side of my teacher instead of an adult who could be perceived as threatening.
The situations I presented are mine, and it is important to remember that each child with SM and family are unique in their own ways. Therefore, it is the best idea to get a professional to evaluate your child and provide individualized treatment that is evidence-based.
The Selective Mutism Association — Childhood Anxiety Network at www.selectivemutism.org is an organization that provides outreach and has state-based coordinators to help you find resources you may need.
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