Sasha Feather has an interesting post up at FWD/Forward about selective mutism. I don’t have this condition, although at one point in the fall of 2003, I thought I might. I met criteria except for my not being a young child, in the sense that I got “locked up inside” (a term I stole from a selective mutism E-mail list I was a member of briefly at the time) and couldn’t speak in certain situations. I do not have the condition not only because I no longer have the huge anxiety-related speech problems I had as a teenager, but also because I have autism, and selective mutism should not be diagnosed if the symptoms occur exclusively during the course of a pervasive developmental disorder.
This gets me thinking about the relationship between autism, anxiety, and speech. My feeling of being “locked up inside” as a teenager occurred primarily with certiain people – for example, my high school tutor -, and primarily when having to speak about certain topics. These topics nearly always involved personal feelings. Now it is known that autistics have trouble understanding emotions, and I am no exception. So I had and still have troulbe speaking about my own emotions, because I don’t understand them. Writing, therefore, didn’t always make the situation easier. Neither did “role-playing”, in which I used one of my insiders as a “mirror image” to communicate my thoughts.
But these strategies did help when anxiety was involved, and it often was. It was hard to tell the difference, because my anxiety could fade quickly when a non-personal subject was mentioned. I sometimes, especially in my late teens, still had word-finding problems then – which were more stigmatizing than total silence, actually -, but I could speak about, say, the war on Iraq or my favorite subject in psychology. This is a way in which autism-related special interests come in, too.
But back to the situations where anxiety was the main reason I didn’t speak. Then, writing things down did help. I have a whole lot of notes I sent to my high school tutor in grade 10 and 11. Role-playing also helped, as I said. I invented one of my insiders specifically to play the role of “me” in difficult conversations with my tutor. I still use this strategy, although a lot less consciously than I used to.
I have to reinforce what Sasha states: anxiety-related mutism, whether it meets criteria for selective mutism or not, is an inability, not an unwillingness, to speak. One of my worst memories from my teens is the night my father threw all sorts of threats at me if I didn’t tell him with my mouth what I’d written down for my tutor the week before. Anxiety was the main reason I’d had to write insteaf of speak, and threats don’t make anxiety any better.