When I was four years old, I had selective mutism.
I walked into school, on my very ﬁrst day, and just stopped speaking. A teacher would call my name in the register and I would stare at them until we made eye contact. Then I would nod. Kids in my class would ask me questions and tease me, and I would be dead silent.
Selective mutism is a severe form of anxiety which stops a person from speaking in social situations. Such environments include classrooms, shops, group meetings or around people they don’t see very often. Symptoms include clinginess, low mood and frustration, which can come across as rude. They may not be rude - but it’s easy to come to that conclusion if you don’t know the whole story.
Selective mutism is a severe form of anxiety which stops a person from speaking in social situations.
My spell of selective mutism lasted for three years - the whole of infant school. It was a confusing time. I was picked on by my classmates and some teachers. I had a lot of anger built up which I would take out on my parents when I got home. No one was entirely sure what was wrong with me - and I couldn’t exactly explain it to them. So it came as quite a shock when I entered primary school and started speaking like I’d been doing it all along.
Something shifted in my brain. It was a mixture of change in location, getting older and meeting a teacher who completely brought me out of my shell, without even realising.
I was picked on by my classmates and some teachers. I had a lot of anger built up which I would take out on my parents when I got home.
I’m stubborn - always have been, always will be. So when kids ran out of the classroom to tell my mum that I had been speaking in class for the ﬁrst time - I rolled my eyes and said "yeah, so what?"
My teacher told us on our ﬁrst day in that class that she had taught music and dance after school. I was given a violin and I was also told to stand up and sing in front of the class alone. I can’t remember what was going through my head but I got up and did it. I think it was because she told me to. I think it was because she didn’t really know my history of not speaking. But mainly, I think it was because she didn’t treat me any differently to anyone else in the classroom. She was also a little scary, but I needed that intimidation. It was time.
I think it’s very important to not make a big deal about someone with an anxiety disorder. If someone is having a panic attack, the last thing that person needs is for someone to start panicking with them.
In this case, I never actually asked for help. I had friends around me who tried to help. They would speak for me and were very protective of me in large groups. I wasn’t shy - I would play with people at lunchtime. But up until I started with this new teacher, no one really knew how to help.
I think it’s very important to not make a big deal about someone with an anxiety disorder. If someone is having a panic attack, the last thing that person needs is for someone to start panicking with them. Therefore, if someone has selective mutism, they do not need to be asked a thousand questions which they are not going to be able to answer. It takes time, resilience and acceptance. It also takes a distraction - like music, in my case - to make them feel a part of something. They don’t need overpraising or singling out. They just want to feel normal, whatever ‘normal’ is. Give them breathing space and if you’re that person who they feel comfortable talking to, let them talk for as long as they need.
Where to get help
If you're struggling with your mental health, you are not alone.