The first installment in Myth Management— a series addressing misconceptions that surround children struggling with Selective Mutism and Social Phobia
By: Tori Trimm, ATS Intern 2017
When I was in preschool, I had a classmate (let’s call her Jessie) who never spoke a word the entire school year. Her dad would linger in the classroom doorway, his knuckles white from Jessie’s small but iron grip, and talk in hushed tones with the teacher while inching his daughter closer to the group already gathered on the colorful carpet awaiting morning circle time. After a few uncomfortable minutes, Jessie’s dad would peel her fingers away from his and leave her hovering near the carpet’s edge. I was absolutely perplexed with Jessie’s behavior (note: I was a particularly nosy five year old, but that is beside the point), which was so contrary to the way the rest of my classmates and I interacted. The phrase I associated with Jessie for as long as I can remember was “extremely shy.” To be fair, that was what everyone said about her. She was a diligent worker, perfectly compliant with the rules of the classroom, but simply never engaged with the students or the staff. Whenever one of the kids would address Jessie or somehow coerce her to speak, our teacher would quickly step in with a gentle, but dismissive, word: “Jessie wants to be alone right now” or “She just doesn’t feel like talking right now”, attempting to alleviate the pressure focused upon an increasingly uncomfortable Jessie. Obediently, we would wander away and leave Jessie to color by herself.
Each year, my school would put on a big play for the parents. It was the highlight of most of our years; we created props, decorated costume pieces and substituted Spanish class with rehearsal time. This particular year, we were producing the underappreciated, but truly gripping work, “Great Eclipse” or “Big Eclipse” or perhaps simply “The Eclipse.” I had the distinct honor of taking on the role of Earth. Jessie, decidedly less thrilled with the process (a fact that utterly baffled me at the time), played Blue Bird. Her spotlight moment occurred toward the end of the play during the eclipse. The teacher would cue her, “…and birds dove into their nests,” and Jessie’s line was something to the effect of “Oh my! It’s so dark” and, then, Jessie was to dive into her “nest,” a weathered brown beanbag. During rehearsals, she would skip the line and fall face-first into her nest, where she would stay for the remainder of the play–including final bows. On the day of the final rehearsals, however, the teacher held the class and waited for Jessie to speak her line. Jessie wouldn’t. The class grew somewhat indignant and impatient, the assumption being that Jessie was being obstinate or oppositional. Jessie eventually dove into the beanbag, crying inconsolably. She couldn’t be coerced to stand up until her father came to pick her up hours later.
When I first heard about Selective Mutism (SM) in one of my psychology courses the fall semester of my Sophomore year in college, I immediately thought of Jessie. Throughout my work with Advanced Therapeutic Solutions (ATS), I have continued to think back to the countless moments that I may have misinterpreted 15 years ago. I imagine we all may have had a similar experience with a similar child in a similar classroom many years ago. I have no idea if Jessie would have been diagnosed with Selective Mutism or any other sort of Social Anxiety, nor am I in any place to make a conjecture, but these behaviors mirror commonly cited symptoms for SM and highlight three of the largest myths that surround Selective Mutism: that the kids are simply very shy, that they are acting in opposition or defiance, and that they should be rescued to alleviate the discomfort that speaking brings. In reality, Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder that affects about 1 in 140 children characterized by the DSM as a “consistent failure to speak in specific social situations (in which there is an expectation for speaking, e.g., at school) despite speaking in other situations”. It is a difficult phobia, but is quite responsive to treatment, especially when attended to early in childhood.
In this blog series, “Myth Management”, we will further examine the basis of the misconceptions surrounding SM, their fallacies, and the empirically supported counterarguments. Hopefully, this will begin to change the conversation surrounding social phobia and Selective Mutism in children so that individuals much like Jessie may be better understood.