Book Review: Selective Mutism In Our Own Words

While Selective Mutism is not a concept that is familiar to all, it requires a positive, sensitive and practical approach. Here, Nicola Kealy finds a text that gives much food for thought when seeking an understanding of the issue…

  • This book was written by Carl Sutton and Cheryl Forrester
  • Selective Mutism (SM) is an inability to speak but having a lot to say
  • It is told through the stories of people that are close to someone with Selective Mutism (SM)
  • The book reviewer began reading with the question ‘why?’ in her head whcih changed to ‘how’. How could she relate and engage with a person with SM

Selective Mutism in Our Own Words: Experiences in Childhood and Adulthood by Carl Sutton and Cheryl Forrester. Foreword by Donna Williams ISBN: 978-1-84905-636-6

“The biggest thing that I didn’t understand was that I didn’t ever truly consider myself to be quiet – inside my head I was so busy, creative and loud that the description never made any sense to me.”                                                                                                              – Kat P87

This book is written from a personal perspective, and is very accessible for anyone with an interest in Selective Mutism (SM). Spread out over seventeen chapters, the book is full of insightful stories by people with SM. It is compelling reading, and you cannot help but be drawn into the world that people with SM inhabit.

The various chapters look at SM in a range of settings, from early life right through to secondary school and beyond; SM and learning difficulties and parents and therapists experiences of SM.

I was drawn to this book because I am currently working with two young women with SM. I hoped that the book might give me more insight into the cause of SM and suggest positive ways that I could work with them.

“SM is not a ‘controlling’ behaviour. Why would anyone who is filled to the brim with words choose not to utter them? Nor is SM a ‘stubborn’ refusal to talk. It’s an inability to speak.”

Kimberly P40

This book throws light on what it feels like to have SM, and how it affects daily life and human interaction:

it was too frightening to speak having developed a pattern of muteness”                         – P34

“this is when I saw, first hand, the full extent of the anxiety behind selective mutism”        – P222

SM is primarily an anxious disorder and the anxiety underlying it does not just affect the voice but a person’s whole being:

In situations that make me feel anxious, I still freeze”                                                         – P123

A person with SM may not be able to show any emotion by normal human means, i.e. vocally or through facial or physical expression. I began to realise what a fortress SM can be, and ironically that a fortress can also be “a place or source of refuge or support[1], which can be further illustrated by the following:

“Research suggests that we may all be physiologically prepared to acquire fears

that hold some protective value – (Hofmann, Moscovich and Heinrich 2003)[2]

The book, as the title suggests, focuses on the experience of people with SM; it is by no means offering a quick fix for SM. In reading these personal experiences of SM, the reader is engaged and encouraged to see a clearer picture of SM i.e. an internal and external view. It is through this new view that the reader (practitioner, friend or family member) can begin to look at how they interact with someone with SM.

Hélene Cohen’s chapter “A Teacher’s Experience of Helping a Child Find Her Voice” talks about a relationship that began in primary school, through to secondary school and the present day. I think Hélene expresses clearly the time, energy, and commitment needed when working with and communicating with a person with SM through the following:

“Our part is to come up with the steps that will facilitate progress, being patient throughout and keeping our emotions away from the child. The rewards are worth every second of time, drop of patience and tear shed”                                                                                                                                                                              –P232

It is clear from reading this book that a one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work. SM is individual and unique to the person experiencing it:

Our words and the way we say them are part of our identity”                                           – P251

As a resource tool, this book is what I would call a ‘spring board to positive action’. There are so many different and shared experiences of SM present in the book, that as a practitioner it was impossible for me not to wonder how I might work with and approach a student or client with SM.

I have always felt that patience and understanding are key ingredients in successful communication with anyone. Sometimes, we are too focused on the whys and wherefores instead of focusing on the possibility within a shared moment. Sometimes, there are no satisfactory answers and frustration can build and blind us.

I started out reading this book asking why? But now I find myself wondering how? How do I as Practitioner and Teacher assist my clients and students to find their voice? How do I create and facilitate a nurturing, safe and creative space for these voices to emerge?

This book is not an easy read because of the emotional impact SM has on people’s lives, but it is a positive and inspiring look at SM. It will not tell you what to do, but it will encourage you to look beyond a person’s silence and how it makes you feel, to the person who is struggling to communicate through the silence.

The biggest message of my story is that change is possible

– Beth Moran

Helping Your Child with Selective Mutism: Practical Steps to Overcome a Fear of Speaking – Paperback – August 1, 2005 – Angela E. McHolm, Charles E. Cunningham, Melanie K. Vanier.

12 - Nicola KealyNicola Kealy is a dramatherapist and the Artistic Director of Rhythm Room