Autistic Selective Mutism: Pt. 2, A Few More Unspoken Thoughts

I recently posted an article, Selective Mutism: I Have No Mouth. But I Must SCREAM…

And I got some great questions on The Aspergian and Reddit.

Which forced me to pull my thoughts together…

It seems I may have screwed up communicating. I may have confused readers by mixing too many things at once.

I emphasized the extremes in my post, without much context of what the general experience of selective mustism is about…

I can see how that could muddy the waters. Being on the inside of experiences like these, without a view of what it looks like from your side… or being certain that I am explaining it clearly to someone who hasn’t had the experience…

Really screws with my head.

So, I guess what I’m trying to do is to share my personal experience with three groups of folks.

  1. If someone has similar experiences, I’m hoping it will help validate their needs, just as others’ experiences have helped me with mine.
  2. If someone knows or loves someone with similar experiences, I thought they might gain from understanding what they are going through. I sometimes hear from folks that they find new ways to explain themselves from reading posts like these.
  3. If someone is wondering, as so many are, if they are autistic… or are neurodiverse in some other way… I’m pretty sure they will find value in experiential writing one way or t’other.

It seemed to me that giving the most clear-cut, significant, and to some extent frightening examples of what my real life is like was a good way to get across how disabling the phenomenon can be.

I think I should be more careful to give general context in the future…

So, here’s the deal.

Selective Mutism means to become involuntarily nonspeaking, or to significantly reduce speaking, around specific individuals or categories of people, in specific situations, under specific stress (such as social, performance, sensory), or under significant general stress.

Reddit’s r/SelectiveMutism has some good stuff. And the Wikipedia article is not bad.

To my knowledge, selective mutism can be experienced in a range, from what feels like a “reluctance” to speak, to “difficulty” speaking, to silence, to more neurological, or perhaps “hysterical” symptoms in which I feel as if I lose coordination or control of my mouth, particularly tongue & jaw.

This last is rare for me, I believe fewer than a dozen times in my life… when I felt what I perceived to be life-threatening levels of stress.

At one time professionals called the phenomenon “elective mutism,” cuz they thought it was voluntary.

It is NOT.

Although, I will say after decades of experiences like these, I have a sense that at the earliest onset, it feels inside like a “reluctance” to speak, as if it is becoming too much effort. At this point, I do have some strategies to deal, among them:

  1. I’ve managed to explain this process to a few loved ones, who may notice early symptoms and alert me…
  2. I use my own hypervigilance to observe me. Is my diaphragm tight? Having trouble finding words Etc.
  3. I tell the person I’m with that I may be having trouble speaking. Sometimes simply acknowledging it out loud can make the effect subside before it gets worse.
  4. I try techniques I’ve found may return balance…
  • Asking for a moment to “collect my thoughts.
  • 3 or so deep, slow abdominal breaths… What some folks call “cleansing” breaths.
  • A brief break alone.
  • A brief walk alone.
  • Focusing on any detailed activity… not involving language.
  • Sometimes scribbling a word, note, or sketch
  • I go into more detail in my first article above

But if I ignore that first warning, I’m likely to end up mute.

Some more everyday experiences of selective mutism:

  • Being in a business meeting with a hostile competitor, and being unable to contribute to discussion… despite the expertise, obligation, and desire to do so.
  • Being called on in class by a domineering teacher.
  • After being isolated from human contact for a day or two.
  • Being stunned into silence by harsh or demanding comment.
  • When overstimulated by numerous sensory or emotional inputs.
  • Sometimes when in pain or ill.

While these are common situations that most humans face… and many folks may become shy, afterall…

The difference is that selective mutism is involuntary, tends toward complete inability to speak, and is frequent and severe enough to cause disability.

In some situations, folks who aren’t aware of selective mutism…. whether they are aware of neurodiversity or not… may misunderstand the intent of nonspeakers.

  • I have experienced selective mutism with a number of psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists for a variety of reasons. Several interpreted my silence as intentional and labeled it as “resistance,” “passive aggression,” “manipulation,” or other conscious or unconscious processes aimed toward them. Um. No.
  • Similarly with doctors, dentists, lawyers, business partners…. Just different names for it.
  • Some educators, from elementary to grad schools, have had difficulty with my mutism. Particularly because, in most contexts, I speak too much and too often as a general rule.
  • A close friend or loved one may assume I am angry, grumpy, distant, having an affair, hiding something, “playing mind games,”… you get the idea. Let’s just say, if I have such motivations for my unexplained silence, I remain the last to know. It seems an instinctual reaction to some form of overwhelm.
  • Law enforcement officers have interpreted my difficulty speaking in a number of unfortunate ways.
  • Fellow poker players ditto. (The few times I’ve played cards outside of childhood. I can’t win anything that involves masking emotion….)
  • Random, unexpected interchanges in daily life can stun me into silence, or greater than average difficulty speaking, such as a rude store clerk…

A lot of the details I wrote about in my first post linked above AREN’T necessarily symptoms of selective mutism.

  • Stammering, stuttering, panic, embarrassment, brain freezes, “white outs,”… These are not, to my knowledge, symptoms of selective mutism, itself. They are my panicked attempts to fight the process… or the emotional fallout from having the experience in public. And perhaps also learned responses…
  • To my knowledge, selective mutism is not about losing consciousness or awareness. I imagine that the panic I feel, to be unable to communicate, as well as the pubic embarrassment induce panic attacks severe enough to bring on a number of weird symptoms.
  • I do not know what other selective mutes or nonspeakers experience inside, but I feel as if I am losing my language ability, not just losing coordination with my mouth and voice box. I feel as if my internal words slow down, come with difficulty, and can cease entirely… like a tip-of-the-tongue experience on steroids. I believe I switch from the language of internal monologue to experiencing a sequence of emotions, images, bodily feelings and understanding… and have a sense of knowing what I want to communicate… but I’m not aware of thoughts as an internal monologue. I tend to think this is part of the experience of selective mutism, but have not read anything along those lines. Yet.

Thanks to my commenters for making me think about your questions. It helps me clarify things for myself.

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