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Breaking their silence

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WORLD Radio - Breaking their silence

Parents and psychologists work to help kids overcome social anxiety that results in selective mutism in some situations


iStock.com/Photo by PeopleImages

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, August 30th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Breaking the silence.

Some children have a difficult time in new situations. We’re probably all familiar with the kid who clams up on the first day of school. But what if that student doesn’t speak for weeks—or years?

REICHARD: This is called “selective mutism.” It’s an anxiety disorder that means the child is unable to speak in some situations—even if they are comfortable and talkative in others. WORLD correspondent Amy Lewis met with some people helping those kids to find their voices.

AMY LEWIS, REPORTER: At the beginning of fall term last year, Tim Vanderstoep thought one of his students was just really shy.

VANDERSTOEP: She just seemed to be one of the quiet kids in the class. And I guess it's quite, yeah, quite often the case that you might just have shy kids who just don't talk much in class. So I just kind of put her in that category.

Vanderstoep teaches digital technologies at an all-girls’ Catholic high school in Geelong, Australia. As he tried to interact with this shy student on individual projects, her silence became more pronounced.

VANDERSTOEP: And yeah, at that point, I realized that she just didn't talk to me. In any other sort of situation, you would feel it would be disrespectful. Right? So with 20/20 hindsight, I can see that's not what it was.

Vanderstoep discovered that his student was dealing with selective mutism. The anxiety disorder often shows up in kids when they enter certain social situations. Adults might think the child is refusing to speak, but in many cases, they are actually unable to.

Elizabeth Woodcock is a clinical psychologist and director of the Selective Mutism Clinic in Sydney, Australia.

WOODCOCK: So kids with pure social anxiety will still be able to talk a bit, but it might be in quite limited ways. But kids with selective mutism have kind of learned this strategy of shutting down and not responding as a way for them to manage those big uncomfortable feelings.

Mary Lassiter lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Three years ago, her 4-year-old son Ethan was known at preschool as “the boy who didn’t talk,” even though he speaks French and English fluently.

LASSITER: So at preschool, he was completely silent. You know, he wouldn't even laugh, he wouldn't even make a sound or cry. If somebody you know, pushed him.

Another mom suggested to Lassiter that her son might have selective mutism.

Having the right vocabulary opened the floodgates for Lassiter to find help for Ethan. She signed him up for an online charter school. That changed the peer pressure and stigma of not speaking. His one-on-one time with teachers increased. She contacted universities with speech and language pathologists and put Ethan’s name on waiting lists to get help.

She found a speech therapist she says was like Mary Poppins.

LASSITER: She was not going to take to pointing fingers. She was not going to take head nods. She was not going to take that a thumbs up thumbs down, which was what everybody would do to communicate.

The therapist helped Ethan say his first words in English after a two-year silence.

The next step was to get him to speak to people that are considered “contaminated.” That means the child has learned he doesn’t have to communicate verbally with those people. For Ethan, that included his grandparents.

LASSITER: So what we did to break that cycle of contamination is play about I think, like 5000 games of rock, paper, scissors. And in order to win, the rock needed to crush the scissors and make that sound.

Once Ethan started communicating verbally with his grandparents, Lassiter started looking for other places where he had to vocalize—like telling a horse to “giddyap” and “whoa.”

LASSITER: So those are the first two words like they got on a horse and after about 50 times on a horse, they're speaking not only to the horse, but we transferred it to the trainer. So we were able to kind of use this and just keep on building that momentum.

Psychologist Elizabeth Woodcock says that working with children who have selective or situational mutism is very rewarding. Because it’s not a lifelong condition: It can completely resolve.

Woodcock notes that selective mutism is triggered by social anxiety. A child is afraid that someone will judge them or embarrass them.

WOODCOCK: And the only way we can actually reduce that anxiety is to expose ourselves to those situations for the brain to learn that really, that bad thing is not going to happen. I'm going to survive or if something bad does happen, I can actually cope with that.

Woodcock uses a strategy that she says works for children who experience different kinds of anxiety.

WOODCOCK: But there is a sort of more powerful bypass that we use called sliding in. And we use this probably with 90 to 95% of our kids.

The strategy works for a child who is comfortable talking with the parent, but not with their teacher. First, the parent plays a talking game with the child in the classroom. Then, the teacher gradually moves into the room, listening to music on headphones, then slowly moving closer to the game, and eventually joining in.

WOODCOCK: And the child's talking in the context of the game. And then we slide the parent out.

Ethan Lassiter eventually moved on from audible games of Rock, Paper, Scissors and telling horses to go or stop. He transferred his speaking in those game-like situations to actually start talking with his teachers.

LASSITER: That week before Thanksgiving was the first time he spoke to his teacher in a complete sentence. And I knew that that right there is proof that there are good people out there that really want to help you.

ETHAN: And the moon is a satellite that travels around the earth.

TEACHER: That is amazing. Thank you, Ethan for teaching me that.

He didn’t stop with just his teachers.

TEACHER: Are they right, Ethan?

ETHAN: No.

LASSITER: He also spoke to their children. And I still have it videotaped, and I have it in my Google Drive, because from this day on, we saw that as like, we literally wanted to cry. We wanted to do secret handshakes with each other because we knew that we broke the silence right then and there.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis in Geelong, Australia.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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