Children with social disorders need to be treated with patience, compassion
This week - Sept. 18 to be exact - my nephew Levi celebrated his fifth birthday.
It always freaks me out when my nieces and nephews turn another year older, as I try to wrap my mind around how long they have been a part of my life and how old that means I’m getting.
With Levi’s fifth birthday came the realization that it has also been five years since my first year of post-secondary at SAIT Polytechnic, as I remembered my mother calling me in the middle of a class during my third week of instruction to let me know I had another nephew.
Realizing this, I began to reflect on how much has changed in the past five years, both for me and for Levi. He has become a smart, funny, rowdy little boy who loves trucks, tractors, fishing, tobogganing, quadding, boating, beating up his brothers and sneak attacking his aunt.
But he is also a very sensitive child who doesn’t respond well to being scolded or even spoken to too loudly. Sometimes asking him a question in the wrong tone of voice can send him running off to cry in a corner of the room.
But his biggest challenge is the fact that he struggles with selective mutism, a disorder where a person capable of speech is rendered unable to speak in certain situations or to certain people.
He’s always been a quiet, shy child who is very selective about who he is comfortable interacting with. Even family members he sees on occasion but infrequently, such as his great-aunts and uncles, have a hard time getting a single word out of him.
When he was three years old, his parents entered him into speech therapy in an attempt to make him more comfortable speaking to strangers.
Two years later, he still won’t speak to his therapist, but will carry on conversations with his parents, brothers, grandparents and myself.
Last year, he entered preschool and every day my sister would tell him that if he spoke to his teacher that day, he would be rewarded with a toy or a treat.
He would tell her he was going to talk to his teacher and would be very excited to do so, but as soon as he got to school his demeanour shifted and he became very timid.
On the last day of school, his teacher informed my sister that he had tried to talk to her that day but became noticeably “tongue-tied,” resulting in him only being able to say one word: “thanks.”
This year, he entered kindergarten and his teacher is finding it very difficult to teach him, which I completely understand. It is frustrating as his aunt when he won’t talk to me and only responds with moans, grunts and snorts.
I can only imagine the frustration his teacher would feel when trying to get him to communicate so she can assess what he knows and still needs to learn.
But when she expresses that frustration through scolding him or grabbing him by the arm and pulling him away from his mother, it only results in him becoming upset and closing himself off from her more.
In an act of her own frustration with the teacher, my sister posted on Facebook last week that “some people need to read up about selective mutism.”
I realized that even I, someone who has a nephew with the disorder, didn’t know that much about it, so I decided to do some reading.
To sum it up, selective mutism is a psychiatric disorder often accompanied by shyness or social anxiety such as panic disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder.
It is usually diagnosed in preschool, but with young children, it is often confused with autism, especially if the child acts withdrawn around their diagnostician, leading to incorrect treatment.
There are conflicting opinions as to whether speech therapy truly helps with the disorder, with many experts saying singling the child out or drawing attention to the problem will only perpetuate it.
In a lot of cases, it seems the most effective solution is patience and compassion.
I think the fact that he wants to talk to his teacher shows some improvement, but he will only be able to if he isn’t forced.
I hope she will learn to treat him with patience and understanding, as I hope for all children who struggle with the disorder.
For more information, visit www.selectivemutismfoundation.org