At the age of 3, my son suddenly stopped speaking ― for hours, then days, then weeks at a time. It was the winter of 2010, when record snowfalls blanketed Washington, D.C., hushing the normally bustling city streets. Inside our small duplex in the suburbs, things were hushed, too. My son, whose language had developed normally, whose squeaky voice had delighted my husband and me since the moment we first heard it, had gone suddenly, strangely silent.
He’d always been a shy child, but he was also a happy, engaged kid who smiled easily and loved to draw and play, so I wasn’t overly concerned. I had enrolled him in preschool in 2009, his first prolonged experience with larger groups of people.
The first couple times my son fell silent that winter, I barely noticed it. But the periods of silence quickly began to grow, and the periods of speech shrank. I spent hours trying to trick my son into saying something, nearly frantic with a worry that felt jagged and unformed, 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 couple weeks, he stopped speaking altogether ― 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’d ever hear our son’s voice again.
An internet search gave me the term for my son’s likely condition: selective mutism, or SM. I scheduled a visit with our pediatrician, and she confirmed the diagnosis. I remember that she tried to engage my son during that visit, pointing to 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 within. I remembered other checkups where he’d happily pointed to pictures in the worn-out Richard Scarry books in the waiting room, saying their names out loud. It seemed unfathomable to me that anything could go ever wrong. This time, his silence was eerie.
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’d ever hear our son’s voice again.
I soon learned that my son was of the fewer than 1 percent of children who have selective mutism. The condition is related to social phobia and social anxiety, meaning that our son felt real fear about speaking. Fear of public speaking is common; for those who get nervous when speaking in front of groups, imagine feeling that way even when you’re talking to a single person. Now imagine that level of fear growing exponentially with each new person added to the situation. That’s what talking can feel like to a selectively mute child. That’s what it must have felt like to my son. His mutism was a retreat, a safe place for his anxious soul.
Almost no one we talked to ― friends, family, teachers ― had heard of selective mutism, which increased our worry and sense of isolation. Because SM is so little-known, it is often dismissed as mere shyness, sometimes even by doctors, when it’s more complicated and potentially debilitating than that. “He’ll just grow out of it,” well-meaning friends told us. I wanted to believe it, and in some ways, things were normal at home. My son still loved to play with his Thomas the Tank Engine trains, smiling as he pushed them up and down the tracks. He still snuggled up with my husband or me at night ― a process I called “cuddlebugging” ― as we read him stories about Elmo and Little Bear. But we saw how fearful he was in public, how closed up, and we weren’t so sure this was something he could conquer on his own.
What terrified me most during those quiet days was reading that Seung-Hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, had experienced selective mutism as well. “Teach me how to speak; teach me how to share,” Cho had written on his dorm room wall, quoting song lyrics. Did Cho’s horrible outcome predict anything about my child’s future? I read stories about how teenagers with SM can develop other problems such as depression, avoidant personality disorder and substance abuse, and it scared me. My son was only in preschool, but it was far too easy to imagine the years ahead of him being clouded by darkness.
My son was only in preschool, but it was far too easy to imagine the years ahead of him being clouded by darkness.
I knew that my own anxiety about his SM wasn’t helping his, and friends and family worked to calm my fears. The director of my son’s preschool told me something I’ve never forgotten. “Someday,” she said, “you’ll look back and be amazed at how far he’s come.” I couldn’t imagine it, at first. Within a month of my son’s diagnosis, however, we began working with a child psychologist, who spent an hour a week just playing with my son, following his lead, helping him grow more confident with someone who wasn’t his parents. As I drove him to the appointment every week, we would pass by his classmates chasing each other on the playground, and I would feel envious of their exuberance, their loud voices and easy smiles. I wondered if I would ever be one of those playground mothers again, sitting and chatting with the easy certainty that all was well with my child.
After a few months of therapy, however, my son had conquered his mutism at home with us ― first offering a few words, then a few hours of speech, and then full-time, regular talking. All his little words felt so big and so precious to me then. Seeing him conquer his mutism at home gave me hope that it would happen in the wider world, too. It would take nearly two more years, but eventually, it did.
Although he is still 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 day-to-day discord of life, how far my son has come. But then something will happen and I’ll remember. And, as our preschool director predicted, I’ll feel amazed.
It happened just a couple months ago. My son, of his own volition, auditioned for the national touring company of a Broadway musical. For this, he had to walk into a large audition room by himself, play a two-minute song on the drums without accompaniment, sing a song a cappella in front of three judges, and submit to a short interview. I imagined my son’s once-muted voice ― still childlike, but growing more mature every day ― making the only sound in that audition 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 playing out before him just like that ― every day a new experience and adventure.
As it turns out, he didn’t get a callback. Do we care? Not at all. He had won yet another victory, the latest in his remarkable and brave young life, just by walking into that room.
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