As I walk my little girl the seven minute walk to school she chats away non stop. We laugh together, relaxed and care free.
Then we reach the school gates and everything changes.
Her shoulders go down, her eyes look only to the ground and her stride slows. Most significant of all though: she immediately stops talking, even if in mid sentence.
A flick is switched and that’s the last her voice is heard until I pick her up again at 3pm.
My daughter has selective mutism.
It’s an extreme anxiety condition that means she physically can’t bring herself to speak in certain situations despite being very verbal in other places.
You would be forgiven for thinking my daughter hated school. The reality is she doesn’t.
She has friends, loves learning and enjoys the routine. But she is too terrified to talk in that environment.
She never spoke a word in the two years she attended nursery and hasn’t spoken in school for five years.
Like a lot of people with selective mutism she is also on the autism spectrum and has a further diagnosis of generalised anxiety.
Can you imagine being too terrified to talk?
Too terrified to ask for help when you don’t understand what the teacher has said.
Too terrified to ask for a rubber or to sharpen your pencil.
Too terrified to raise your hand to answer a question even if you know the answer.
Too terrified to even ask to go to the toilet.
It’s debilitating and disabling.
People assume she is making a choice, controlling, even manipulating things.
In actual fact she is so terrified her voice is unable to form words.
She told me once it was like the words just refuse to come out of her mouth no matter how hard she tries.
She wants to speak, she just can’t in certain places or to certain people.
It’s not bad behaviour it’s severe anxiety.
So her teachers have never heard her speak. Her classmates don’t know what her voice sounds like.
She’s never had words to learn for a class assembly or school play and assessing her reading ability has caused problems because she can not read aloud.
Selective mutism affects her education.
It affects her socially and emotionally and it robs her of so much.
Yet all the time at home she’s chatty, funny, and displays a large complex vocabulary and a beautiful delicate voice that I never tire of hearing.
She reads aloud, converses freely and is animated. She dances, plays and jokes around.
Yet outside of her home she’s like a rabbit caught in headlights, like a puppy hiding under a blanket, like a statue frozen in fear.
Too terrified to attract attention, too terrified to talk.
Beautiful, clever, but consumed with anxiety.
Bound by the reigns of selective mutism with no means of getting free.
Imagine having words but being unable to use them?
That’s her life every single day.
That’s selective mutism.