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

The West Australian - - AGENDA - Phoebe Pin

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.”

Pic­ture: Si­mon Santi

David Broad, who has se­lec­tive mutism, at the Perth Cul­tural Cen­tre in North­bridge.

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