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Selective mutism: the teenage boy who cannot speak
DANIEL Bates cannot speak.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to. It’s not that he’s physically incapable. He can chat happily with his family and they know how good his sense of humour is.
But trying to talk to me, a stranger, is simply impossible. In fact, at first it’s hard even for him to look at me or make a gesture.
It’s not that I’m particularly intimidating.
Daniel can speak to almost no one – not schoolmates he has known for years, not teachers he likes, not people who have been going to the same church as him since he was a babe-in-arms.
He can only talk to a handful of close family, and even then, he tends not to initiate conversations but to join in with what’s being said.
He has what’s known as ‘selective mutism’ although the name is rather misleading. The Hampshire 16-year-old isn’t choosing to be silent. He would love to be able to speak out. He would love to be able to make friends. He knows what a negative impact it has had on his life up to this point. But none of this makes it any easier for him to open his mouth and for words to come out.
In fact, communication is so difficult for him that he admits it’s a struggle to answer the email questions I send him after our meeting at his family home in Hordle in the New Forest. “Sometimes when I am asked a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question I shake or nod by head, but I feel I want to say something to expand on the answer and know what I want to say but can’t, which is frustrating,” he writes, adding that if he is with someone he doesn’t know, he feels under increasing pressure and his heart starts pounding.
Daniel’s mother, Catherine, says that when he was very young, there were no signs that anything was wrong. He was talking by the age of two but when he went to preschool at the age of three he found it very difficult.
“It was traumatic,” says Catherine.
“He didn’t settle and found it very tough. He didn’t really say anything – he wouldn’t answer the register until he had been there a term and never really spoke up, but away from there he was fine and would talk to family.”
But things got worse when he went to primary school. He wouldn’t speak to anyone except very close family – while he could speak to Catherine’s mother, who regularly looked after him, he even struggled to speak to his other grandparents, despite them all living close by.
Catherine and her husband, Ian, knew that Daniel’s problem was more than just a behavioural issue, but they didn’t know what it was.
“I felt very isolated,” she says.
“It was the early days of the Internet and there wasn’t Facebook. Then when he was about six I came across the Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMIRA) and knew straight away that this was his problem. Even though I was a teacher myself I’d never come across selective mutism before.”
Daniel with his mother Catherine, father Ian and sister Charlotte
Catherine threw herself into researching the condition and passed the information on to Daniel’s school. But while they put strategies into place to help Daniel get the most out of school, his ability to communicate didn’t improve.
Catherine remembers how Daniel described his condition when he was aged around seven.
“He said his tummy was like jelly,” she says.
“The words were there – he knew what the wanted to say – but they physically wouldn’t come out of his mouth.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Daniel’s inability to speak hasn’t affected him academically – in fact his mother thinks his academic success may even have been a barrier to him getting help as his silence may have been seen as less of an issue than it otherwise would.
Daniel has never had behaviour therapy, which is one of the treatments that are now recommended. Catherine explains that while they did involve external agencies when he was first diagnosed, they seemed to have limited experience of selective mutism and didn’t appear to know how to help.
Instead, Daniel, his teachers and classmates and those who know him in more social settings have adapted to his silence. But it seems that this adaptation, while allowing him to cope, may also have hindered his progress into the world of speech.
“Outside of school it’s getting easier to communicate,” writes Daniel.
“At school it is still hard and will continue to be so, because for me it is a place that I associate with not speaking and a place where there have been many negative views expressed and experiences connected to my silence.
“I feel that because a work situation would be completely different, I hope that it will be easier to communicate as it will be a fresh start.”
Catherine adds: “It’s like he’s in a bit of a rut with the people who have known him for a long time, because they don’t expect a response.”
One area where Daniel has particularly suffered as a result of his silence is socially. As a youngster he was invited to a few parties by school friends but he would sit with his mother, who accompanied him, and eventually the other children stopped asking him along.
“It makes it very difficult to make friends,” writes Daniel.
“Since I started secondary school I have not had any proper friends, although there are people I get on well with, who know how to phrase questions to include me in conversations without me needing to speak – some people can do this better than others.”
Unfortunately, despite the huge growth of social media over recent years, because Daniel has difficulty with all forms of self-expression, he isn’t able to develop friendships over Facebook or email.
“I email my teachers if I have any questions but I still feel uncomfortable using written communication, including online, as it is still expressing myself,” he explains.
Daniel and his family hope that being in new situations, where people don’t simply assume he won’t speak, will help him to be able to break his silence as he gets older and goes out into the world more and form new relationships where he can communicate who he really is.
And they also hope that people who do encounter him in the meantime will understand that he isn’t being rude or arrogant when he doesn’t answer their questions or their polite greetings.
“It would make a massive difference to my life if I could speak freely,” writes Daniel.
“My life could have been so much better if I didn’t have selective mutism.”
- For more information about selective mutism and support, visit smira.org.uk or search for Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMIRA) on Facebook.
What is selective mutism?
SELECTIVE mutism is an anxiety condition which prevents sufferers – usually children – from speaking in certain social situations.
Those with this condition can speak freely in certain situations, such as at home with close family.
It is not voluntary – sufferers are not choosing to remain silent. They are physically ‘frozen’ and cannot speak.
It is thought that the condition is the result of anxiety – there is no evidence that it is the result of abuse, trauma or neglect.
Most children will work their way through selective mutism with support and appropriate therapy. NHS guidance is for parents who are concerned about a child having selective mutism to speak to their GP, health visitor or to approach their nearest speech and language therapy clinic.
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