Tag Archives: selective mutism

I was a selective mute

When I was 3 years old, I stopped talking.  I was progressing normally until then and I progressed in every other way imaginable after, but when it came to speaking to people who were not my parents or siblings, I just couldn’t do it.  My mom wasn’t even aware that I had stopped talking because I still spoke to her.  It wasn’t until my family visited my grandparents in Florida that my grandma mentioned that I wasn’t speaking.

I was selectively mute.  The diagnosis was previously called elective mutism, but it was changed to reflect that those with this disorder do not choose to not speak.  They just can’t.  I remember many times as a kid when I was pressured to speak and most of those times I desperately wanted to say something just to end the relentless interrogation, but it was like an invisible force was around my neck, preventing me from saying anything.  I once described the feeling like a cartoon garden hose with a kink and the water pressure builds until the hose explodes; the words would clog my throat and I’d fight to simultaneously keep them down and hope that they break free.  I wanted to speak but over the years my silence became comfortable and I couldn’t figure out a way to start talking without causing huge reactions from my peers, those of which asked me nearly every recess why I didn’t talk.  How was I to go from being “The Girl Who Doesn’t Talk” to being a kid who does?

Following third grade the school district boundaries changed, so I, and many other students, was moved to a new school.  This redistricting would end up changing my life.  At my new school I had the chance to start over and be the kid who does talk and most of the students would have no idea that it was something I struggled with, but the fear of revealing my voice was still overpowering.  My fourth grade teacher pulled me aside a few days into the new school year and requested that I start communicating with her but through a notebook.  I was reluctant to start and fought it as much as I could.  The idea of changing, even as little as using a notebook to communicate, seemed more daunting than speaking.  Later on I was introduced to the school’s psychologist, Ms. Manning.  She had a plan and was willing to do anything to get me to where I needed to be.

One of the projects the fourth graders were tasked to do was to create a children’s book that we would write and illustrate ourselves.  Having been a budding writer from my experiences of writing stories in class at my last school, this project was something very special to me.  Ms. Manning discussed making my big goal, to be accomplished at the end of the year, as reading my story to my sister’s second grade class.  The reward for completing this feat was to be a pet bird, which my parents had agreed upon.

Throughout the year Ms. Manning gained my trust and I started speaking with her. Using the same methods she helped me feel comfortable around other people, like my teacher and a few classmates.  By the end of the school year I had finally started speaking in class, but I still had to complete my final goal of reading my story.

The day came and all I remember is being up at the front of the class.  I don’t remember the walk to the classroom or how I ended up in a chair with a bunch of seven year olds crowded around me, but I do remember the gut-wrenching fear.  I was scared out of my mind, but I was also a courageous and ambitious little girl, so even though I did not want to read, I did it anyway.  I spoke to those younger kids, telling them the story of a girl who befriended a talking carrot as they go off into the city and solve crimes.  The story itself did not make much sense, but ideas from kids rarely ever do.

Closing the book to mark the end of my tale, I felt a huge wave of relief as the gurgling in my stomach settled.  I smiled hesitantly, like I had just outrun a cheetah and the realization that I was still alive hadn’t sunk in yet.  The second graders clapped for me, all but one unaware of how monumental this day was.  I looked to my sister and then to my mom and Ms. Manning standing in the classroom doorway; if I could speak, I could do anything.

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Would I Get Rid of it if I Could?

I’ve been thinking tonight about having autism.  I was wondering if I had the ability to get rid of my autism would I do it?  This is a tough question for me.  While having autism is ingrained in me and my personality, I wonder if I’d be better off not having it at all.  Before the symptoms appeared at age 3, I was a very outgoing child, I’d whistle in public, I was all around rambunctious.  When age 3 came, I changed.  You can see it in my pictures.  I went from a smiley child to a kid who never showed her teeth and never looked happy.  Around age 3, I stopped talking except to my parents and sister.  I became reserved and quiet and I appeared to be depressed.  It is heartbreaking to see this child, me, in pictures because I just look so unhappy.  I didn’t start talking again until 4th grade and in 5th grade, I felt very comfortable with my classroom and even acted somewhat outgoing at times.

Would I get rid of my autism though?  While the diagnosis is still very new, it has been a part of me for most of my life, unknowingly.  I imagine my life would be so much easier if I wasn’t autistic.  I’d be able to handle myself in interviews, I’d be able to have a conversation and not feel completely weird and awkward about it.  I wouldn’t make other people feel awkward just by being me.  If I could get rid of it, I’d be considered normal.  I’d be able to date and fall in love without being uncomfortable about it.  If I didn’t have autism though, I wouldn’t have an interesting story about my life.  I feel like I’ve lived many lives in just one.  There was my selective mutism years, then my depressed years, then my relapsed depressed years and now my autistic years.  I have had more happen to me than the average person and it makes me an interesting person, I believe.  I have stories to tell, which is why I am a writer.  If I could get rid of my stories, my history, my interesting side, I wouldn’t be me.  I’d be someone who never had anything happen to them.  I’d be boring and I am certain I wouldn’t be a writer.  “Curing” my autism would not be the answer for me.  While I have not completely accepted having autism, I feel it is something to be proud of.  It’s something unique that not many people have and I have a different perspective on life because of it.  In a nutshell, I would not get rid of my autism if I could.  I wouldn’t be me if I did.

Let me tell you a little bit more…

In May 2013, I entered a mental health treatment facility to manage my depression for the first time.  There the psychiatrist told me he thought I had Asperger’s syndrome.  I didn’t know what I felt at the time, maybe a little bit of denial, maybe a little bit of curiosity because a psychologist friend, who knew me as a child, told me she didn’t believe I was on the spectrum, and I believed her.

I had a pretty normal development, if you don’t count the fact that I stopped talking when I was 3 years old to everyone but my immediate family and a very select few friends.  I started talking again when my psychologist friend, who was the psychologist at my elementary school, intervened.  I was awkward throughout middle school and high school, having very intense interests like writing, presidents, birds, certain actresses, my pets, and TV shows and movies that had a love theme (like Who’s The Boss? [80’s sitcom], Notting Hill [Julia Roberts film], and currently Castle [Nathan Fillion/Stana Katic dramedy]).

I was very smart.  I got very disappointed if I ever got a B- on a report card.  I graduated from high school in 2004 with honors and a 3.6 GPA.  I decided to go away to college and room with my best friend at the University of Minnesota, Morris.  I loved the town and I loved the school and still do to this day, but I struggled being away from home.  I isolated myself in my dorm room the three and half years I was there, I rarely went to class and part of me regrets staying so long, mainly for the massively bill I accumulated.  I finally moved back home and got a job at Rainbow Foods, where I still work.  I am a cashier and I do not enjoy it at all.  It is difficult for me being so verbal and outgoing with people.  I do feel I was meant to be at this job for some time though.  If I hadn’t taken this job, I would still be very quiet and shy, I am still that, but not nearly as bad as I was 5 years ago when I started.

3 months ago, I was introduced to the possibility of being on the spectrum.  I made an appointment to get tested as soon as possible, which happened to be in August.  Now, a few weeks later, I got the preliminary diagnosis from the therapist.  She believes I am on the spectrum in some capacity.  I find out more information the next time I go in a week or two.

I hope this introduction to me helps you understand what I have gone through in this beginning process of diagnosis and acceptance.