My 5-year old boy has a cherub's face with a hint of mischief in his beautiful green eyes. Brian dances to silly music and entertains us with his antics. He tells his brother to leave him alone and he teases his sister while she does her homework. The only difference between Brian and most other children is that while he is at school, he is mute.
He will not raise his hand to answer a question or to ask to use the bathroom. When the children count off in gym class, Brian holds up his fingers, leaving a momentary sound lapse until the child after him calls out the next number. He is not mentally handicapped or autistic. He is not deaf or speech-impaired. Brian suffers from selective mutism.
This is a debilitating childhood anxiety disorder in which a child who can speak in the comfort of home is unable to do so in school, church, or other social settings.
Children with this disorder usually speak to their parents and immediate family members, but often not to other relatives. My sister has never heard him speak directly to her. When Brian was in preschool, we assumed he would outgrow his extreme shyness. That’s what everyone told us, including his pediatrician.
When Brian's kindergarten teacher first greeted him, he froze in his tracks and couldn't make eye contact. She asked him to find his cubby with his name on it, and because he could read his name, I thought he'd point to it. Instead he stood like a statue, unable to move. I hoped his reaction was not an indication of how the year would progress.
Later on, though, my husband and I visited Brian’s classroom to see his work. Next to Brian's name was a blank space where shapes and colors should have been. Although he had learned shapes or colors at age 2, he couldn’t tell them to his teacher. Where pictures of apples on a tree denoted the other children's favorite kinds of apple, Brian’s apple was not hanging because he couldn't tell the teacher what he liked. I wanted to cry! We headed home, wondering how we could try to make things better for our son.
The next month, the school nurse provided us with information about selective mutism. We realized then that Brian’s silence might actually have a name. I discovered that children with the disorder have been misdiagnosed as autistic, mentally handicapped, or defiant.
Now any form of eye contact that Brian makes, any smile he gives, any sound that comes from his throat outside of our home is a wonderful breakthrough, and we’ve had some. I'm happy with those baby steps, but I long for the day when Brian will be silent only in the library or a movie theater, and when he lets the rest of the world see the bright and happy personality he reserves for us. Maybe then he'll share his story and help other silent children.
Visit Selective Mutism Group — Childhood Anxiety Network for more information.