Thursday, July 9, 2015

Selective Mutism

Hello!  I am really going to try to get serious about blogging again. For real. For very real (as Isla likes to say).  I took an unintentional break and considered just being done with the blog altogether.  But I am not ready to give this up yet, as I love having this record of our life, and I enjoy being able to share it with family and friends.  So here I go again with yet another attempt at regular(ish) blogging.

For today's post, I am sharing an update about Isla.  I have been debating how much of this we want to share publicly.  I don't want to bring unnecessary attention to Isla, and I don't want to make a big deal out of this and create a label that defines her (more about that in another post!). I also don't want her to look back on this and be upset with me for sharing so much information about her.

But, as we have learned more about what is going on with Isla, I have found that I am beginning to understand my "hard to understand" little girl a lot more. And I want other people to be able to understand her too.  So by providing this information, I hope more people will be able to understand Isla and why she acts like she does.  I hope this will give you a little peek inside her brain. And for those of you who interact regularly with her, I want you to know what you can do to help her talk to you.

I have also found that this blog can be a way to help others going through similar issues, and that has been a good thing for us in the past.  I enjoy reading other people's stories, and I hope that sharing our story will be helpful for others as well.  Also, I hope that someday Isla will be grateful to have a record of what was going on in her life at this age.

So, here we go.  I've already written about some concerns we have had with Isla and her speaking/participating at school.  Basically, she didn't speak or do much of anything at all for an entire school year.  I've always described her as extremely shy and extremely stubborn.  But after talking to her teachers, some speech therapists and her doctor, we decided that her shyness and what appeared to be her stubbornness were beyond the range of normal.

We were referred to a psychologist who confirmed what the therapist had already suspected, Isla has Selective Mutism.  Selective Mutism is an anxiety disorder which causes the inability to speak (and in certain cases, like Isla, to participate) in certain social situations.  The biggest diagnostic tool for determining Selective Mutism is a child who speaks and acts normally in one setting, but then consistently does not speak in another setting.  School is the most common setting for kids with selective mutism to not speak, with home being the place where they are most comfortable speaking.  As I researched Selective Mutism, I found that Isla fits the description almost perfectly. It was like someone wrote a textbook about my own daughter! Even when I go back and read this last blog post, when I had no idea that Selective Mutism was even a thing, I now realize that I was writing about Selective Mutism without even knowing it.

Kids with Selective Mutism are often called shy and stubborn.  Some may describe them as defiant, especially when they refuse to speak or participate when it is requested of them.  This is exactly how we have described Isla's behavior at school for the past year (she is a different kid at home though)!  We have questioned whether or not this is an obedience problem.  Should we punish her when she does not cooperate with or speak to her teachers or other adults?  This diagnosis of Selective Mutism tells us no, this is not an issue of disobedience or direct defiance.  From all that we know, we believe that Isla wants to speak and participate, but she can't.  Anxiety causes her to shut down, and her silence and frozen stature are the coping mechanisms that her body and mind use to deal with the feelings of anxiety.

The goal in treating Selective Mutism is to help Isla feel more confident in these difficult social situations, like school.  We wan to slowly encourage her to change her behavior and the way that she copes in situations where she feels anxious.  It is a long process of tiny baby steps, gently pushing her to try to do the things that make her feel anxious, while trying to not push her too hard and cause more anxiety.  We are trying to use a lot of positive reinforcement, and we also are hoping to make some changes in her school classroom to help her feel more comfortable. If she feels safe, she will be much more likely to participate and eventually speak.  My advice to people who just meet her is to avoid asking her any direct questions, even simple ones like "how are you?"  A question expects a response, and for Isla, that expectation usually leads to her shutting down.  Isla responds best to people who are quiet and who don't try too hard to get her to talk.  She will talk to you when she's ready, and she will be more ready to talk to you if she feels like you are not expecting her to talk to you.  Does that make any sense?!

Research shows that most kids with Selective Mutism will overcome it and/or outgrow it.  While some social anxiety may persist into adulthood, we don't think she will be silent forever or for even more than a couple years.  It's not going to be easy to help her through this, and I have already been frustrated by the slowness of the process.  But I feel good knowing that we know what is going on now and that we have a plan to help her in the future.

While I have talked about some of the struggles she had at school over the past year, she did make some great progress at school too.  She started the year and would not even move from center to center, her teachers had to pick her up and physically carry her.  By the end of the year, she was walking willingly on her own, pushing in her chair, putting work (usually that she didn't attempt) in her cubby, participating in some of the daily jobs in her classroom, and nodding and pointing in response to her teacher.  We are super proud of this progress, and we are looking forward to even more progress in a new school year!

On the last day of school, she was all smiles and even let me take her picture on the playground and in front of her classroom.  I'm so happy that she ended the year with a smile.  Even though she didn't speak or participate, she still seemed to enjoy going to school.  In her head I think she thinks that she is participating more than she really is.  She knows everything that happens in her classroom, she knows the names of all the kids and what they do each day, and she even picked out a few kids whom she called her "friends," even though she didn't ever speak or interact with them in any way.

I've said this before, and I will continue to say it, Isla is a special little girl who teaches us daily that God created everyone with different personalities and abilities. No two people are the same, and we are learning to celebrate the ways that Isla is different and precious to us!


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