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February 26, 2010

ST. CATHARINES — He could speak three languages fluently by age three, but outside of his own home, he didn’t utter a sound.

In kindergarten, he spoke to just one little friend. Not a word to anyone else. Not to his other classmates. Not to his teacher.

Mom Po-Ling Bork, couldn’t understand: if he’s talking at home, why won’t he talk at school?

One day at recess, little Ayosha Bork somehow acquired a big goose egg of a bump on his forehead. He wouldn’t tell his teacher what happened. When his mother picked him up at school, he remained silent until they climbed into the familiarity of the family van.

By Grade 1, even though he spoke German, Chinese and English fluently at home, at school he was totally mute.

Halfway through that year, came a diagnosis: selective mutism. A fear of being seen or heard speaking in public.

It has nothing to do with defiance or wilful stubbornness. It is more than just being shy. Kids who have selective mutism aren’t delayed in language development — at home they can be chatterboxes.

It affects every child differently. Some will communicate in other ways, using gestures and facial expressions. Some kids whisper. Some will speak to only a couple friends. Others don’t speak at all.

Typically, they really want to talk. But can’t.

It’s an anxiety. A phobia so consuming, they are frozen speechless by fear.

“It’s like you’re watching a car come towards you, and you freeze on the spot,” says Bork.

She along with Debra Harwood, Brock assistant professor in the Faculty of Education, will be hosting a workshop on selective mutism at the Early Childhood Community Development Centre on March 30.

They will offer strategies to maximize a child’s social successes.

Since her son’s diagnosis, Bork has become passionate about educating people about what is still a misunderstood condition, although there are more kids with selective mutism than autism. She wrote her master’s thesis on strategies to help children in the classroom and has presented her research around the world.

Bork, a doctoral candidate at Brock, is working on the development of iSpeak software to help children with selective mutism in the classroom.

Selective mutism often shows up when a child starts school, so kindergarten teachers are on the front lines. However, helping children takes a team effort, which usually includes parents, psychologists, counsellors and sometimes medication.

In the classroom, teachers are encouraged to allow children to use other creative ways to communicate, until they’re ready to speak on their own, says Harwood.

For show and tell, a child could tape themselves talking while at home, then stand behind their prop and play the tape in front of classmates. They could stand somewhere else in the classroom where no one can see them and talk to the group on a walkie talkie. Or they could turn off the lights and have circle time in the dark.

Teachers need to unlearn techniques — like getting down to a child’s level and making eye contact when they talk, says Harwood. That could make a child with selective mutism even more anxious.

Having a safe, comfortable place to talk in the classroom is important, too, says Harwood.

This could mean setting up a privacy screen or even a tent.

Sometimes it’s about building on what works at home.

Little Ayosha loved talking to his mom at home. So, when he was young, Bork would sit next to him in the classroom to give him a familiar face to talk to.

“They get used to hearing their own voice in the classroom,” she says.

At home, Bork invited Ayosha’s friends over for playdates so he could get used to talking to them first in the comfort of his home.

At first, Ayosha wouldn’t speak to even his mother in front of his friend. They had to be alone in the kitchen. He progressed to talking to his friends while burying his face into his mother’s tummy.

“There was something greater than him,” says Bork.

She once took her son’s friend along with them on a trip to Florida. On the ride home, Ayosha sat in the back seat, and talked to his friend in the middle seat, on a walkie talkie.

He desperately wanted to speak and was disappointed each time he failed, says his mom.

Bork was terrified that if her son ever got lost, he wouldn’t be able to ask for help, or that if he was in danger, he wouldn’t yell for help.

Often a child’s silence gets reinforced at school, when their friends start speaking for them, says Harwood.

As they grow older, they become adept at avoiding situations where they have to speak and they can suffer from low self-esteem. The older they are, the harder it becomes to change their behaviour, says Harwood.

These days, Ayosha is 13 and has learned to overcome his fears of speaking at school. He is proud of his accomplishments.

As for Bork, she is determined to educate parents so they can find help early on and prevent unnecessary suffering.

“Sometimes I wonder if this was a calling,” she writes.

“For me to experience this first-hand so that I am able to reach out and help others.”

Source:  http://wellandtribune.ca/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=2466888

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