At first these parents thought their children's reluctance was simple shyness. But they soon learned that dealing with selective mutism is never simple
The search for help
While these kids are silent, their parents quickly learn to speak up. Many say the quest for help is complicated, long, expensive and often disappointing. After Rebecca Mason,* from Toronto, consulted her family doctor about her daughter Ellie (then three), they faced waiting lists. Eventually, a psychologist diagnosed SM and met with Ellie for weekly hour-long play therapy sessions over seven months at a hospital-based child and adolescent mental health clinic. “The cost was covered by OHIP, but I got no feedback and nothing improved,” she says. “I got the impression the psychologist had no experience with selective mutism.”
At school, Mason faced similar frustrations. “I was assured that Ellie would grow out of it. These kids are often overlooked at school because they don’t cause any trouble. They’re following rules to a T because they don’t want to be singled out.” Finally, after “scouring the Internet” and speaking to friends, she discovered a psychologist experienced in this area. They met with her about five times during the year. “She never asked Ellie direct questions, so there was no pressure,” says Mason. Instead, they played the board game Guess Who? together. Ellie was told she could whisper the answer to her mom if she liked.
The psychologist also showed Ellie pictures, ranging from happy faces to scared faces, to find out where, when and to whom she felt most comfortable talking. For example, she asked Ellie to circle how she felt when the teacher called on her. After several sessions, Mason invited the psychologist to a school meeting with the teacher and the principal. “The psychologist explained that SM is an actual phobia that needs to be treated,” says Mason. “They listened because it wasn’t coming from me. The biggest obstacle is having other people not think I’m insane. It feels like nobody knows about this condition.”
Although Mason felt relieved to get skilled help, she had to pay $175 an hour for it. Her husband’s work insurance only covered $500, so it didn’t go far.
Read on: What parents can do