Selective mutism: some progress and challenges

He used to say “I don’t want to speak English” when asked why he didn’t talk at the daycare. That was back in January. I asked him again recently and his answer took me completely by surprise. He said that he had a ball in his mouth, that’s why he didn’t talk. I didn’t know what to make of it until I read other stories about children with SM and how they explained their inability to speak. One boy, for instance, said “There is a tape in my belly and all the words are stuck there.” So maybe this was just Koopa’s way of explaining how not talking was not his choice, that he’s just unable to do it.

The good news is that there has been some improvement with his SM in the past week or so. For instance, I’m told that now during their circle time at school he may occasionally whisper the “My name is Koopa” song in a louder-than-usual whisper, and without approaching the teacher. Other kids overhear him and clap to support him.

I’ve noticed that when other kids introduce Koopa to their parents at the daycare, they used to say something like “This is Koopa. He doesn’t talk.” But nowadays, they say, “This is Koopa. He talks juuuuust a little bit.”

He’s started talking a little outside of school too. Once during a play date with his classmate who happens to live in our building, he actually said some stuff to him out loud! AND was even able to yell out loud from our building’s backyard to his friend standing on the six floor balcony “Noah, come here!” That was exciting for everybody.

He needs a lot of encouragement too. After the play date he told me “Mama, I think Noah likes playing with me, right?” (“Мама, Ноа любит со мной играть, правда?”). Which confirms what I’ve read about SM that its not just an isolated fear of speaking, but is related to social anxiety, and that helping him with his SM is going to be just the first of many steps we’ll have to take to help him grow up a happy and well adjusted person.

The bad news is that because he gets frustrated at his inability to communicate, he can get quite rough with other kids at school, hitting and pushing them when he wants a toy, or when he wants to join a play but is unable to. This is, obviously, an understandable frustration. I assume that joining a play of peers or getting a toy that you want often involves more than a simple “Can I have it please?” (which I don’t think he can say yet), but some more elaborate negotiations.

He’s making progress though, and that’s important. It feels like there are two most important strategies we can implement right now to further help him. First, we have to remember not to switch to Russian when we talk to him in public, even when nobody overhears us. He’ll still answer to us in Russian, but that’s ok, as long as he’s learning that the two worlds, the comfortable family world and the less comfortable outside world, can blend and speak the same language. Second, its probably good to create more situations where he can interact with peers, especially his classmates, outside of daycare. That way he can practice talking in a comfortable non-pressuring setting, where he can rely on my or Gleb’s help as mediators if needed. It’s gonna take some special effort to implement this second strategy and organize more social interactions for Koopa, me being the loner that I am. God, I still feel like I have a ball in my mouth when I have to initiate any kind of interaction with anybody.

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2 Responses to Selective mutism: some progress and challenges

  1. Sarka says:

    Yay Koopa! I'm really glad to hear that he's making progress. I hope he continues to make progress in feeling comfortable and safe enough to be able to talk.

    The ball in his mouth reminds me of a vivid dream I had when I was very little, in which my dad couldn't talk to me because his tie was stuck in his mouth. For a long time after that, I would say “Don't get your tie stuck in your mouth” whenever I would say goodbye to him – it became a joke eventually, but was very serious at first. It was a very frightening image for me, and I imagine it's even harder when you're the one with the tie/ball in your mouth.


  2. Tupla says:

    Man this is a terrifying dream for a kid. Now I'm trying to decide what's scarier to have stuck in your mouth, a ball or a tie. Either way, I'm going to have nightmares tonight.


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