The West Australian
A Perth man opens up about his selective mutism
He may look calm and confident but film student David Broad finds it difficult to put his feelings — or anything, for that matter — into spoken words
There is nothing in his countenance that betrays his secret. If anything, the 22-year-old film student is the picture of composure and self-assurance. He looks sharp. His is a style that appreciates the importance of a crisp button-up shirt and a handsome leather satchel. The waitress notices nothing out of the ordinary when she brings out his refreshing beverage and I am the one to thank her.
He would like to thank her, oh how he would love to be able to throw away a word of gratitude with casual nonchalance. The fact is, he can’t. There is nothing wrong with his English, he has no developmental issues, he doesn’t have tonsillitis (though he has used that as an excuse with many a nosy stranger).
Quite simply, David Broad has a fear of speaking.
Selective mutism is the term commonly used to describe unusual speaking behaviour such as David’s, where a child or adult persistently fails to speak in certain situations, even though they have the ability to speak in other environments, usually in the home with their family.
Don’t be fooled by the implications of the word “selective”, however, as at the root of this mutism is an anxiety so pronounced that it causes the throat to tighten, the heart to race, the stomach to churn and the mind to freeze, effectively eliminating the element of choice in speaking.
“The most frustrating thing about SM is obviously that I can’t verbally speak to people and communicate efficiently,” David writes on the compact whiteboard that sits between us. “But what’s also frustrating is the assumptions people make when meeting me. Most people assume I’m either deaf, mentally challenged or rude.”
Selective mutism is thought to affect one in 140 children between the ages of four and seven in Australia, though the prevalence is likely to be a lot higher because people falsely assume the child is simply being stubborn or overly shy.
Consequently, children do not get the support they need and are often the victims of the adverse methods of teachers who try to force them to talk.
David has sad memories of people trying to pressure him to speak, a method which only makes speaking situations all the more unpleasant.
“It’s quite draining at times,” he says of the assault of emotions that well up when he is expected to speak. Anxiety, of course, overwhelms rationality and common sense but feelings of shame and guilt also linger and prove to be equally torturous. “You blame yourself for not talking to people and it makes those people feel like they’re not important enough to you to speak to them.”
There are five people in the world who have heard David speak. What is unusual, even by the standards of his selective mutism, is that he cannot talk aloud to his friends, some of his siblings or even to his father.
The home is often the only sanctuary where a child with
Some think I just choose not to talk, as if not talking is the easy option. David Broad
selective mutism can relax and speak after a long day of silence — but this is not true for David.
“Home is not comfortable,” he writes. In the quietness that envelops him, every sound his body makes is expressive. After a pause, he begins to write again, though he is much quicker, the words black and smudged across the board.
“I have family members who push and whatnot. Some think I just choose not to talk, as if not talking is the easy option.”
According to clinical psychologist Darin Cairns, such complicated and strained family dynamics are common in households affected by selective mutism.
“When common sense fails, parents and siblings start to self-doubt, become confused or even resent the fact they cannot affect change on something that seemingly comes so easy to children growing up normally,” Mr Cairns says. “The self-doubt and sense of frustration can easily lead to feelings of guilt.”
Although David’s own experience with psychological therapy was nothing but disheartening, Mr Cairns has successfully helped children with selective mutism manage their anxiety and achieve breakthroughs in speaking. “All fears can be overcome with time and practice,” Mr Cairns says.
Speech pathologist Danielle Cottam has a specific interest in selective mutism and has found it is by no means a lifelong sentence to silence. “With anxiety you don’t push it away, you find out how to cope with it, how to manage and how to get the things done with it being there,” Ms Cottam says.
With her clients, she favours a type of steps progression therapy commonly called “sliding in”, which involves slowly building up the child’s confidence for talking by breaking down speaking activities into small steps.
Though the approach is commonly used to help younger children speak, Ms Cottam says it is still possible for an older person like David to overcome his selective mutism. “I think for anybody, you don’t ever stop learning just because you get to a certain age,” she says.
David does not believe his mutism is permanent, he just doesn’t know how to overcome it. “Many plans have been attempted and failed,” he writes. “I’ve lost hope a few times but I want to keep trying. I aim to overcome it.”