Beth Robertson speaks to her mother, Jean Robertson, about Jean’s experience of Beth’s early childhood condition
The master bedroom is quiet, but as inviting as it’s always been. The bed is made, and a collection of plushies and figurines stand guard over it from a shelf above the headrest. There’s a desk on the far side of the room, but we are sitting on the end of the bed.
The woman in front of me is smiling – nervous but composed – and her eyes are focused on me. We look like opposites – her medium length brown hair contrasting my short red hair – but our eyes are the same. This is my mother, Jean Robertson, and 16 years ago, she was introduced to the condition selective mutism when I developed it after a childhood trauma.
“I would describe selective mutism as a child that wants to speak but physically cannot,” she starts, glancing away from me as her mind wanders back. “In your case, it was a physical thing. When you tried to speak, you could see all the muscles in your neck and throat clamp up and tense so that speech was not possible.”
In medical terms, selective mutism is an anxiety disorder in which “the expectation to talk to certain people triggers a freeze response with feelings of panic, like a bad stage fright, and talking is impossible… However, people with selective mutism are able to speak freely to certain people, such as close family or friends, when nobody else is around to trigger the freeze response.”1 It begins in early childhood, and if left untreated, it can persist into adolescence and even adulthood. In my case, I was very lucky.
“You had selective mutism for about 18 months, throughout the ages of 4 and 5. It was first brought to our attention that you were starting to go quiet by Jimmy D’s – the playgroup you attended about three mornings a week from the age of 3.”
The playgroup would provide regular reports on my progress, with updates on things like my counting and reading ability, hand–eye coordination and fine motor skills. Everything was ‘normal’, until one comment began to crop up repeatedly. “The reports started saying how you would not participate vocally in the storytelling sessions and in the noisy play sessions, and how you would not take part in singing, but you would still participate in playing and painting, and you would listen when a book was being read. You participated in every way except for making any noise.”
Selective mutism is usually first noticed between the ages of 2 and 4, when a child starts interacting with people outside their family, such as in school. A child may avoid eye contact and seem nervous, clingy, disinterested, stiff or aggressive when faced with someone they don’t know; a stark contrast to their behaviour with people they are comfortable with.
There’s a pause. I keep quiet, not wanting to interrupt. I’ve heard this story many times, but it’s always been the Cliff Notes. I’m finally getting a more detailed version of events.
“We went through the health visitor and took you to see someone who would assess your hearing and general intelligence,” Jean continues. “It was thought that, because your mutism seemed physical, you might be trying so hard not to talk, you were not taking any notice of the teacher. We saw a lady who said that she could “whisper in different decibels…” We both chuckle at this comment. I’ve heard this anecdote before too, and the idea of someone talking in different decibels always makes us laugh. It’s such an absurd way to describe a job! “You were sitting beside a little table with different toys on it – like, a toy of a little man and a toy van – and she stood in the corner and whispered to you the word ‘man’, and you picked up the man, not the van. She did this several times with different toys that sounded the same and whispered in different decibels!” – another giggle – “but you got it right every time. She also did a lot of tests using charts, cards and blocks to test your intelligence regarding spelling, recognising things, counting, and you aced every test.” Jean smiles at me when she says this; a proud smile. I smile back but look away, deflecting the compliment.
With hearing issues and learning difficulties off the table, my parents moved on to other possible causes. “The health visitor talked to us about the fact that there were some people that you could speak to. As any condition needs a name, she was the one that came up with the name ‘selective mutism’. This was not a commonly known condition at the time, but she said that now we had put a name to it, we could get some help from the school counsellor. Your teacher, Miss Griffiths, had never heard of this term and was waiting for the school counsellor too. We all thought that we could talk to her and get more information, but this never happened. The counsellor only came into the school for one hour per week, and all her time was already taken up with other children, so she never had the extra time to see you. I left messages for her to see if she could give me any information in general on mutism, but nothing ever materialised. I knew then we were basically on our own in trying to figure out a way to help you.”
I can’t help but feel a pang of anger at this. There’s something unfair about the one person that could help us being too busy with other students. I shake this off as best I can. She had a job to do and only so many hours in the day, like everyone else.
“As the school had never heard of it, they didn’t have any ideas or books that could help. So, I set about looking on the internet,” Jean continues. “There was not a lot of information out there at all, especially for parents, though there was some material for teachers and health professionals. I finally found some reading materials and I ordered a large binder full of teaching aids and started to work my way through, pulling out different ideas that I thought we could try. Miss Griffiths and her teaching assistant, Mrs Harrington, had both said that they would help in any way they could.”
One of the ideas that came from this binder was the idea of bringing home into school and school into home. It was decided that my mum would come into my class two to three mornings a week, and Mrs Harrington would take me to her house one day a week. I can vaguely remember my mum being in school with me, but I never fully understood how this situation came about.
“It was hoped that you would feel comfortable at school because, if I kept popping in, you would not be daunted by it, and with Mrs H taking you home to her house you would see that teachers were just normal people as well. This idea eventually led to you laughing out loud with her two children in her garden.”
But laughter was just the beginning. “Miss G would read your name from the register each morning. She had come to accept that you would not say ‘Good morning, Miss Griffiths’, and allowed you to put your arm up. The mornings I was there, you would sit on my knee and when Miss G called out your name, I would make a different animal noise each day. This made the rest of the class giggle and you smile. This eventually led to you (on a day I was not there) saying, “BOO!” when she called out your name. She fell off her chair, which she said was on purpose, but I am sure the first time she ever heard your voice it was real!” I can recall this myself: the image of my reserved, somewhat strict teacher falling on the floor is clear in my memory. With it comes a sense of pride: I did that!
“She went on to fall off her chair every morning, just to make you laugh. One of the things I had read was that, if the child ever did make a noise or even speak, you were not to react at all. You had to act as if it was the most natural thing in the world. In practice, this never worked. Miss G falling off her chair was just one example of not one of us being able to help reacting in some way – but it did not seem to matter as you were just as pleased as us.”
But it wasn’t all fun and games. As the condition was relatively unheard of at the time, a host of issues emerged when interacting with people who didn’t understand what I was going through. “Either they did not understand it and just thought you were being rude, or they saw it as a challenge – a ‘leave her with me and I will get her talking’ kind of thing, or getting in your face and trying to force you to speak. As you faced this on a regular basis, there were some people who we decided not to tell so that they would continue to treat you as they always had. You were so good at non-verbal communication, these people never realised that you had never spoken to them or that they had never actually heard your voice.”
While more confident children with selective mutism may be able to use gestures to communicate, more severely affected children may be unable to use any form of communication – spoken, written or gestured. Each child is different, and the causes of the condition can be different too. While my selective mutism began due to trauma, it can also be caused by existing anxiety with social situations, a speech or language disorder, or sensory processing issues.
Eventually, 18 months after the trauma that started it, my voice retuned, and I had an unexpected creature to thank for it.
“We didn’t realise it at the time, but animals were like a therapy for you. The big breakthrough came when someone donated a wormery to your school. The class was outside in the garden area digging up worms to put in the wormery, and apparently the floodgates just opened and you started talking to a teacher and would not stop. The other teachers took the rest of the class in and left you and that teacher outside as they did not want you to stop talking. I think you were out there for about 20 minutes. I got a phone call asking me to get to the school quickly but they would not tell me why. When I got there, Miss G and Mrs H were crying, and I thought ‘Oh god what’s happened?’ and they then told me about the wormery. We were all in floods of tears, but we had to try and hide it from you because laughing is one thing, but three adults in tears might have frightened you.”
Since 2005, it’s become more apparent that animals can help selectively mute children to begin using their voice. In a blog post on families.com, Jen Thorpe writes: “Psychotherapist Aubrey H. Fine has been successfully using therapy animals with special needs children. Dr Fine had a 5-year-old patient named Diane who was a selective mute. Diane was able to speak when in therapy sessions with Dr Fine if a therapy dog named Puppy was present…The therapy animal provided a safe way for Diane to begin to use her voice.”
With the celebration of my recovery came a newfound fear for Jean. “Naturally, we worried that you might have gone back to being mute at some point. One chapter in the binder said that if a child has not started speaking again by the age of 5, they would probably be like that for years. Another chapter said that, even if a child started speaking again, they would become mute again at the age of 17!” Jean chuckles at this, but the laughter quickly trails off. “Bit weird that one but there was so little known about mutism in those days. I suppose they did not have many children to write about.”
I wonder how Jean reflects on her time supporting me with selective mutism. “The most important thing I learned over the whole experience was patience. I realised early on that there was never going to be a quick fix. Our job was to protect you from people who would try and pressure you into speaking, giving you time and space to feel comfortable and letting you know that you could do it in your own time. And to someone else going through the same thing, I would say you need to find out the root cause, otherwise you are fighting a losing battle. Get as much advice as you can, but pick and choose what you feel is right for your own child. Then just be patient, and do not put any pressure on them at all.”
Beth Robertson is a creative writing student, currently in her third year, and lives in Lincoln with her friends from university. She enjoys musical theatre, cosplay, D&D and writing. When not writing for university, she enters writing competitions through which she has had short stories published. thenoisywriter.squarespace.com
- NHS, ‘Selective mutism’, updated August 2019, available at nhs.uk/mental-health/conditions/selective-mutism/.
- Jen Thorpe, ‘Therapy animals can help kids who are selective mutes to speak’, available at families.com.
First published in Issue 81 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.