At the age of 3, my son suddenly stopped talking – for hours, then days, then weeks at a time. It was winter 2010, when record snowfall blanketed Washington, DC, choking the normally busy city streets. Inside our little duplex in the suburbs, things were also quiet. My son, whose language had developed normally, whose squeaky voice had delighted my husband and I since the moment we first heard him, had suddenly passed away, strangely silent.
He had always been a shy kid, but he was also a happy, engaged kid who smiled easily and loved to draw and play, so I wasn’t too worried. I had enrolled him in preschool in 2009, his first extended experience with larger groups of people.
The first two times my son was silent that winter, I barely noticed him. But the periods of silence quickly began to lengthen and the periods of speaking decreased. I spent hours trying to trick my son into saying something, almost frantically with a concern that felt jagged and informal, with no beginning or end. I asked him a million questions. I sang his favorite songs. Nothing worked. And with that came the dawning realization that this was something more than a phase. Within a few weeks, he completely stopped talking – at home, at school, with grandparents, everywhere. In addition to our fear for our child’s health, my husband and I experienced a deep and unexpected sense of loss, wondering if we would ever hear our son’s voice.
An Internet search gave me the term for my son’s probable condition: selective mutism, or SM. I scheduled a visit with our pediatrician, and she confirmed the diagnosis. I remember she tried to engage my son on this visit, showing colors on a poster and asking him to name them. He just shook his head and pursed his lips tightly, as if to lock the words deep inside him. I remembered other exams where he happily pointed to photos in Richard Scarry’s worn books in the waiting room, saying their names aloud. It seemed unfathomable to me that everything could go wrong. This time his silence was worrying.
In addition to our fear for our child’s health, my husband and I experienced a deep and unexpected sense of loss, wondering if we would ever hear our son’s voice.
I quickly learned that my son was among the less than 1% of children with selective mutism. The condition is linked to social phobia and social anxiety, which means our son felt a real fear of speaking. The fear of speaking in public is common; for those who get nervous when speaking in front of groups, imagine feeling that way even when talking to one person. Now imagine that the level of fear increases exponentially with each new person added to the situation. This is what speech can feel for a selectively mute child. That’s how it must have felt for my son. His silence was a retreat, a safe place for his anxious soul.
Hardly anyone we spoke to – friends, family, teachers – had heard of selective mutism, which increased our worry and sense of isolation. Because MS is so little known, it is often dismissed as mere shyness, sometimes even by doctors, when it is more complicated and potentially debilitating than that. “It will grow,” well-meaning friends told us. I wanted to believe it, and in some ways things were normal at home. My son always loved playing with his Thomas the Tank Engine trains, smiling as he pushed them down the tracks. He always snuggled up with my husband or I at night – a process I called “cuddling” – as we read him stories about Elmo and Little Bear. But we saw how scared he was in public, how closed he was, and we weren’t so sure this was something he could conquer on his own.
What terrified me the most during those quiet days was reading that Seung-Hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, had also suffered selective mutism. “Teach me to speak; teach me to share, ”Cho had written on her dorm wall, quoting song lyrics. Did Cho’s horrific outcome predict anything about my child’s future? I read stories about how teens with MS can develop other issues like depression, avoidant personality disorder, and substance abuse, and it scared me. My son was only in kindergarten, but it was far too easy to imagine the years ahead of him being darkened by darkness.
My son was only in kindergarten, but it was far too easy to imagine the years ahead of him being darkened by darkness.
I knew my own anxiety about her SM was not helping hers, and my friends and family worked to allay my fears. My son’s kindergarten principal told me something that I have never forgotten. “Someday,” she said, “you’ll look back and be amazed how far he’s come.” I couldn’t imagine it at first. Within a month of my son’s diagnosis, however, we started working with a child psychologist, who spent an hour a week playing with my son, following his example, helping him become more confident. with someone who was not his parents. As I drove him to the meeting every week, we passed his classmates chasing each other on the playground, and I felt envious of their exuberance, loud voices and easy smiles. I wondered if I would ever be one of those playmothers again, sitting and chatting with the easy certainty that everything was fine with my child.
After a few months of therapy, however, my son had overcome his silence at home with us – offering a few words first, then a few hours of speeches, then regular full-time conversations. All his little words seemed so big and precious to me then. Watching him overcome his silence at home gave me hope that this would also happen around the world. It would take almost two more years, but ultimately it was.
Although he is even more introverted than some of his peers, my son is now a happy, confident and outspoken 11 year old. It’s so easy to forget, in the daily discord of life, how far my son has come. But then something will happen and I will remember it. And, as our preschool principal predicted, I will feel amazed.
It just happened a few months ago. My son, of his own accord, auditioned for the national touring company of a Broadway musical. For this, he had to enter a large audition room alone, play a two-minute song on the drums without accompaniment, sing an a cappella song in front of three judges and submit to a short interview. I imagined my son’s once muffled voice – still childish, but growing more and more mature each day – making the only sound in this hearing room. I imagined his shy smile as the judges praised his tempo and pitch (as they apparently did) and thanked him for coming. I imagined his life unfolding in front of him like this – every day a new experience and a new adventure.
In the end, he didn’t get a callback. Do we care? Not at all. He had won another victory, the last of his remarkable and courageous young life, just by entering this room.
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