Working within the field of child therapy something I encountered for the first time many years ago (but didn’t have a “label” for yet) is selective mutism. The symptoms of this are characterised when a child who has an ability to communicate verbally does not. Often the child will have to be coaxed and encouraged into making any communication at all, such as gesturing, pointing or signing.
As the mutism is selective there are certain context where the child chooses not to communicate – such as at school or with particular family members. This can be really frustrating for everyone concerned as it may appear to parents as though child is just being difficult or stubborn. To teachers or others who fail to hear the child speaking, they maybe concerned about the child’s level of understanding and development. There may also be frustration here if the child is choosing to talk to other children but remains selectively mute around adults.
The very first child therapy client that I worked with who had selective mutism was a little girl who attended my nursery a couple of afternoons each week. Back then I had never heard of selective mutism so just assumed she was being s stubborn little so and so! As such my reaction to her “condition” was to be as persistent as possible With the belief that I would at some point get her talking. I did! And looking back now, there were a few key elements that made it happen.
The first thing is was the use of quiet persistence. I say quiet persistence because my tactic was not to give up on speaking to her but equally to avoid making a fuss about the fact she wasn’t responding.
The second thing was to build rapport. I would often play alongside her and be chatting away even though she wouldn’t engage with me. The message I was giving her by doing this was that it was a safe environment and that she could be comfortable around me. It was also important that she viewed me as equal to her rather than the big looming adult.
The third thing was giving it time. As a result of taking things at her pace there was no pressure for her to “perform.” We worked within her time frames so that she was doing things at the rate and speed with which she felt most comfortable.
The fourth thing (which was the turning point) was to talk to her about something which was so familiar to her, she couldn’t stop herself from responding. With her, I stumbled across this quite by accident when at tea time she was refusing to sit with the other children who were all eating beans on toast. I went and sat next to her and started rambling. I started saying “I had baked beans at lunch today but my ones had the little sausages in them I don’t know if you’ve had those before my mum gets the tins from Sainsburys but not everyone’s mum goes to Sainsburys, some mums go to the other shops like Asda or-”
At this point she gave me the biggest ever surprise and spoke. She said “My mum goes to Tescos”
It was as if the whole room gasped and went silent! No one had ever heard her speak before. I really felt it was important to not make a fuss about the fact she had started to speak and so I simply added to her comment by explaining that my mum only ever went to Tescos if Sainsburys didn’t have all the stuff on her shopping list.
And she added to that. We carried on from there and we never mentioned the fact that for the first few months at nursery, she had never spoken. She went from mute, to shy, to being one of the loudest in the group!