Saying Goodbye to Selective Mutism
For those who have children with SM… remember those first days when you realized your child wasn’t talking to the other kids or adults? I sure do! After the initial panic, you pull yourself together and schedule a professional medical appointment. The psychologist performs a series of tests and confirms it is selective mutism. Now what?
If you’re lucky enough to have good insurance, you search out an SM expert and begin a long therapy journey. But many discover their insurance doesn’t cover the therapy needed to treat the anxiety disorder. And it’s not just a one or two sessions and you’re cured scenario. Do you give up hope? No, you shouldn’t. There is still hope for living beyond the silence of selective mutism even without paid therapy. But it doesn’t happen on its own. You have to work at it. SM is not something a person can outgrow.
Without professional help, you must learn everything you can about the anxiety through books, websites, and SM groups. Knowledge is the first step to recovery. Talking to other parents and people who have learned to overcome will give you an insider’s view of what to expect. Determining the best treatment plan for your situation needs to be individualistic, so obviously a paid professional would be the best resource but not the only recovery avenue. You can do it!
Here’s what we did:
Twenty years ago, my son was diagnosed with SM. He was four. There was little information available at that time and therapy wasn’t as known. Our child psychologist had never treated the disorder and ended up making things worse in an unintentional mishap. But he did guide us in the right direction, and we continued with our own version of therapy. What did we do? Well, we started with not bringing to attention the fact that our son didn’t talk to others (or if he accidentally spoke in front of someone, we didn’t acknowledge it). Instead, we focused on all the positives he made with being brave. Then we put him into situations encouraging him to talk (at restaurants/concession stands). If he didn’t respond within a minute or so, I would usually order for him. But we always tried to give him a chance to respond. And we tried to act as if he always spoke to others, like it was no big deal, even when we knew differently.
I think the single most important thing to help reduce the stress on a person struggling with selective mutism is to not make a big deal about their lack of speaking (or if they spoke). We should turn that into law. Anyone who goes against this law should be zapped with an electric volt. Not powerful enough to harm, just enough to get their attention and knock some sense into them. Who agrees? Ha, can you imagine petitioning to get this law passed?
In all seriousness, overcoming selective mutism is a process. Often, a long process. Those who have been silent beyond elementary school into middle or high school and even into adulthood have a bigger struggle than young children. But that’s also true for learning foreign language. Younger children are like sponges and take in new ideas easier than us older folk. It doesn’t stop teens and adults from studying a foreign language though, does it? Nope. They just work harder at it. This is exactly what someone with SM needs to do when they’re older.
Saying Goodbye to Selective Mutism
Here’s an exercise to try for overcoming SM:
Write a goal of what you want to accomplish. You have 24 hours to reach that goal. Make it something attainable, like, smiling at someone in public, or just making eye contact. Do this each day for one week. Then the next week, make a new goal. Here are some sample goals:
- Briefly look at the top of a stranger’s head (above their eyes)
- Make eye contact with someone
- Smile at a stranger
- Combine a smile and a nod with a stranger
- Combine a smile, nod and maintaining eye contact with someone
- Wave at someone you pass on the street (small wave)
- Wave and mouth the word “hi” to a stranger
- Say the word “hi” to a stranger
- Write down your food order, try to verbally order but if you chicken out, hand the paper to the worker
Those are just a few suggestions to get you started. Only you know what level your child/you are in with your recovery of SM. Maybe you’re already doing all the above and need bigger goals. If so, that’s great. Just make your goals easier at first, then gradually more challenging. It’s easier to practice at home with exactly what you plan to do before you go live. And if you fail at first, no worries, that is just preparing you for eventually succeeding.