Selective mutism: a teenager freed from silence. Hannah’s story.

This is a real story as part of the “real blog” about Selective Mutism. I always change the names in the blogs, but this time the girl who has answered all my questions, wishes me to use her real name. “I want people to know my story, I am ready for this..” she told me.

Today I am sharing Hannah’s story, a young woman who is officially a recovered Selective Mute. I was part of her journey just before she went to High school. She was determined to understand her condition and together we made a plan of slowly conquering little steps… she pictured her fear, drew it, created it outside from her head and slowly untangled the knot… I cannot thank her enough for sharing this with us, especially as there are many teenagers who needs to believe that change is possible.

When was your SELECTIVE MUTISM diagnosed?

I first noticed I was different to other kids when I started nursery. The other kids would talk and play together but I always felt there was something holding me back.

How did you feel?

My mutism always felt like brain freeze. I would get sweaty and a deep panic would set in, I would feel sick and I would just freeze on the spot.  My parents always fought for help for me even though it wasn’t always easy and many people just didn’t understand my condition.

What steps did you take?

Through primary school I got help from my first speech therapist, L., who arranged weekly sessions out of class with a few other kids from the class that I had chosen. We would play games that encouraged me to communicate with them and form relationships with them. I did struggle at school and I spent a lot of time alone as my condition didn’t allow me to make friendships easily. I was very aware that I was different to the other kids and it make me incredibly self conscious and anxious. I have now learned through time that being different was not a punishment but a blessing and I’ve learned to embrace the fact that I’m different to everyone else. I mainly kept to myself and school was never a place I found comfortable.

I was labelled as “shy” by many people which was extremely frustrating because I definitely was not quiet! It’s a strange condition because at home I was always the crazy, outgoing person that my family knew, but anyone outside the family and close friendship group thought that I was shy and hardly ever spoke and they never got to see how fun loving I could be.

When I did talk at school I noticed that my voice was often strained and I spoke in a kind of ‘baby voice’ and kept responses very clipped to avoid talking a lot.

I slowly began being able to give one word responses and answers to questions which was a huge breakthrough for me. My mutism didn’t progress very much after that and it was a depressing time for me and my family. I felt isolated at school and I was often singled out as the freak that never spoke.

I met Anna just as I was about to go to high school. She was an amazing help and she helped me come to terms with my condition and made sure that all family members, including my younger sister, were involved in my journey.

As a teenager it was probably when I struggled the most. I knew I was going to high school and I worried about what it would mean for me and how I would cope. I had very low self esteem and low self belief. I felt trapped by my mutism as it wasn’t the real me.

Anna and I worked on achieving small manageable goals, for example, going to the shops ad buying something myself or starting a conversation with a stranger. Anna was very supportive of me and I felt comfortable around her and was able to communicate with her comfortably. Some of the things I feel that worked best for me were the thought boxes.

How did you feel when someone asked you a question?

It was as if the ground fell from beneath me as I could feel myself panic and my whole body would freeze. My mind was unable to form words and even though in my head I always knew what I wanted to say the words would never come out. It just felt as if I was trapped in someone else’s body with no control.

Sometimes I felt like people wouldn’t accept me if they knew who I was so being silent was the best option because they couldn’t hurt me then. It just became easier to not talk as time went by and I felt afraid of people hearing my voice.

I never truly understood why I felt like this but just eventually came to terms with it and accepted that that was how I would feel forever.

What strategy workers worked for you?

Anna suggested that to boost my positivity I should write down and discuss 5 good and 1 bad thing about my day. While at first I found this hard I eventually managed to see the good in every day and this helped me to feel happier and less down about my condition.

My biggest breakthrough was going to camp in primary 7. I’m still not entirely sure what changed in me but I felt I could speak to people I had been afraid to speak to for years!

Something in my mind just clicked and I decided I had had enough of being silent and it was just like the mental block was gone. I was no longer afraid of people hearing my voice, I did however still struggle to start conversations but I no longer felt I had to hide my voice or speak quietly.

It wasn’t easy but it just seemed to happen and I realized that I got a buzz from it. I did team activities and took part in everything that we did; it is still one of the best experiences of my life.

What would you say to teenagers who suffer from SM?

If I was to give any advice to other kids like me it would be:

  • to push yourself
  • always keep trying new things because your mutism shouldn’t top you enjoying life
  • Stay positive because you’re not alone try and talk to family and friends about how you are feeling.

What would you say to parents?

  • The best thing you can do is to get help for your child and talk to them about how they are feeling.
  • Try not to make a big deal out of their mutism because it can make them feel worse and more aware about it.
  • Just treat them normally
  • Give them the same opportunities as any normal child.

Tell me about one of your achievements

When I started high school I was really nervous, it was a massive step for me but also the fresh start I so badly needed. No one there knew me and I felt I could reinvent myself. Anna was very supportive over this transition and kept in touch with us throughout. I’ve made many new friends at high school and I really came out of my shell over time.

It was always difficult but I just pushed myself and the more I pushed the more confidence I gained.

I was desperate to leave school altogether and earlier this year I took a full time position on a family farm park. I’ve worked there part time for two years now and it is the best thing I’ve ever done.

The work is great but the best bit is that I feel for the first time like I belong. I get on so well with all of the staff and I do bottle feeding speeches, I talk to groups of kids (and adults) that come to the park and work on the till in the shop.

I’ve amazed myself at the change from the quiet little girl starting school to working with people every day. I’ve discovered that I’m actually a people person!

I would like to thank Hannah and dedicate her these words:

“With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance all things are attainable……   It takes bravery to recognize what your difficulties are…it takes courage to do something about it” (anonymous)

Anna Biavati-Smith

Speech and Language Therapist

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