By Tanya Mozias Slavin
Figure out the length of the pause. That was my main challenge in the first couple of months. The pause between the moment somebody asked my son a question and the second I began to answer it for him. Wait too long and it could mean risking him unnecessary embarrassment (as well as putting the asker in an awkward position). Respond too soon and it might deny him the possibility to answer for himself, narrowing the chance that at some point I might hear his voice in social situations.
One day my son Martin was a typically developing, albeit shy, three-year-old. The next he wasn’t able to say a word to a close family friend. We had been visiting friends over the Christmas holiday when I first noticed he wasn’t speaking to the people he knew well. It didn’t concern me much, until weeks later, when I realized that I couldn’t remember the last time he’d spoken to anyone but me or my husband.
Selective mutism is a rare childhood anxiety disorder that makes a kid who is capable of speaking unable to talk in certain scenarios. For most children, it means not being able to talk outside of a few familiar settings. For Martin, at its worse stage, it meant his speaking was limited only to family members, and only at home.
At first his issue didn’t seem like a big deal. Everybody knows that toddlers don’t always respond to adults, that they need their own space. Besides, we moved a few times during those years, so we attributed his silence to his changing settings. It was when he settled into his new school that the issue took on a different slant. Sure, he made friends, he played, he even laughed and cried, but it was all without emitting a single sound.
School usually presents a special challenge for kids with selective mutism, since it’s a place where they are expected to talk. Suddenly we were presented with a whole new set of challenges. How would his teachers assess his reading level if he wasn’t able to read out loud? How would he ask to go to the bathroom without words? How would he resolve playground conflicts if he couldn’t talk? And the tricky question for me: how best to handle him at home, where after a whole day of holding his voice in, he talks so much and so loudly that things get out of hand in an entirely different way?
This is the constant buzz of questions in the head of any parent of a child with selective mutism. These children are not stubborn or defiant. They want to speak. In fact, they are often bursting with things to say. But their crippling anxiety renders them practically mute in new or less familiar situations. Other parents may worry about how to get their kids to speak politely, and not interrupt, or say swear words. I, on the other hand, would be ecstatic if one day my son rudely interrupted me, or anyone else, or said the f-word out loud in public. Any word.
“Does Martin ever talk?” a boy on the playground asks me after school as he hands Martin an invitation for his birthday party. “Yep.” I try my best to sound casual. Martin is standing right beside me. “He does talk at home. He just needs some time to get comfortable speaking in school.” I almost never mention the term “selective mutism.” Only with teachers, and those who will be dealing with Martin on a regular basis. People can handle a few seconds of unexplained awkward silence, or not getting a “hello” or a “thank you.” More importantly, I never explain anything to anybody in front of Martin. As his mother, I feel like it’s my job to make his selective mutism normal, to draw as little attention to it as possible, to treat him like he is an average child who happens to feel shy that day.
When talking to my son about his disorder, I empathize, I validate, but I also empower. I say things like “I know you can’t talk yet” (instead of just “I know you can’t talk”), repeating the mantra I learned at one of the workshops on selective mutism led by Maggie Johnson, UK’s leading expert on the topic. I do my best to say it in a casual manner, to make sure my own anxiety doesn’t seep into our interaction, so he doesn’t feel like I’m pressuring him or eagerly waiting for him to start talking.
And then, one October morning when he’s six, there’s a phone call from the school. I press the phone to my ear with my shoulder as I’m changing my wriggly but still mostly silent three-month-old daughter’s diaper. I ignore her attempts to get my attention with her toothless grins and instead tune in to the voice on the other end of the line. The voice of the school counselor. She sounds out of breath, as if she ran all the way to the phone from very far away.
“He’s talking!” she exclaims with a smile in her voice and an audible relief.” He has whispered to a few friends at play time.”
He is talking. It’s only just a whisper, just the beginning, but it feels huge.
In that moment I suddenly hear myself exhale fully, completely, as if a hard rock that had been stuck in my trachea for years had finally been dislodged. I hang up the phone and immediately bend over to kiss my baby’s round belly and repeat to her the news out loud, laughing.
And in response I hear, all of a sudden, coming from that same belly, her first ever rolling baby laugh. And all I can feel is the sheer relief at the loud outward sounds both of my kids can now make at the world.
Tanya Mozias Slavin is a writer, linguist and a mother of two. She lives, talks, whispers and laughs with her family in the UK. Read more of her writing at www.tanyaslavin.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.