Anxiety leaves kids speechless


Jayden Hickenlooper, Reporter

Taking shyness to new extremes, selective mutism is an anxiety disorder impairing the ability to speak in certain situations. While a selectively mute child can spew words like a garden hose at home, they might not say a word in classroom settings, or around new people.

According to the Selective Mutism Center, selective mutism is an actual fear of speaking and of social interactions. It’s described as shutting down entirely. Even if they want to speak, they can’t due to the anxiety.

A rare disorder, selective mutism affects less than 1% of people seen in mental health settings, according to the American Speech-Hearing Association (ASHA). Most people with the disorder are children, and some go into adulthood, progressing worse as they go untreated.

Junior Yesenia Gonzalez is selectively mute. She’s struggled with it since kindergarten, unable to speak verbally to anybody but her parents. “You don’t feel comfortable talking in public or any social situations,” she explains. “You’re physically isolated from everyone else and mentally putting yourself down constantly.”

Junior Parker Mossel is dating Gonzalez and he hasn’t heard her speak a word. “It’s just a difficult thing to handle, even after dating for two years,” he says. “It’s just hard to imagine that someone can’t talk to you out of anxiety, even when they’ve known you for that long.”

Mossel is still supportive of her regardless. “It was never weird. It seems normal, […] I don’t judge people on their life decisions.”

Some people suffering from selective mutism learn sign language, or some other form of nonverbal communication.

Mossel and Gonzalez communicate through texts. “The conversations aren’t as in-depth as I’d like,” says Mossel. In-person, they mainly communicate through yes/no questions and gestures such as nods and head shakes.

Recovery can be a hard thing to find. Gonzalez says she’s seen about ten therapists and counselors, and none of them did much for her. “They tried, but it was just the same thing,” she says. While general therapists might not be able to help sufficiently, language speech pathologists can specialise in the field.

I am a recovered selective mute. I struggled with it from childhood, progressing worse until I couldn’t talk to anybody. Recovery was a process, and is still something I’m working on. Taking small steps to get rid of anxiety is a very constructive thing to do.

Knowledge and understanding is key to recovery. If I hadn’t understood my disorder, I wouldn’t have been able to fix it. If parents don’t know it’s a real problem, they might think their child is just stubborn. If teachers don’t understand the problem, they could get frustrated with the student.

Resources are available online for anybody who is interested in learning more about the disorder. People can find information, professionals, and stories of people with the disorder or who have recovered from the disorder.