First big change
In time, we made plans to emigrate and ended up leaving South Africa in February 2012, Kathryn was 22 months old. She had her 2nd birthday in New Zealand and stayed home with my husband who looked after her for the first few months of us getting settled. When my husband found a job, we had to enrol her into a Kindy (Daycare). I noticed even more that she didn’t respond as a “normal” little girl would to friends and family. People said “Oh she’s shy” and I’d smile politely and just nod my head in agreement especially since I didn’t have any other explanation or know better. Around other people, she was quiet and would hide in another room whenever we got visitors. If she wanted my attention, she would hide around the corner and peak at me until she got it. I would then go to her in the other room, she’d look around to make sure no-one was around and whisper inaudibly to me.
Eventually, she came around and would sit in the same room with everyone but would not say a word. She would whisper in my ear but hardly anything would come out, looking every few seconds around the room to make sure no-one was looking or listening. One day stands out in my mind during this time, we had some friends over for one of my son’s birthday. A friend’s dad noticed her behaviour and matter of factly commented: “Oh, she’s a mute” and explained how there are kids who just don’t talk. I didn’t pay much attention to him and just looked at him a bit confused and smiled. Saying, my daughter, is a mute just didn’t make any sense to me because my understanding is that of someone who can’t speak. In hindsight, I should have probably made more effort at that point to look into it. I was just of the opinion that she was just quiet and would eventually come around and talk. Most times, my sister-in-law would say she was just like her as a child…wouldn’t say a word until one day, she started talking and now we can’t get her to keep quiet. (It became the joke in the family and for a while, I just accepted it).
A few months after being at Kindy, I was asked by one of the teachers if I knew that she still hasn’t said a word to anyone since starting. I was a bit surprised but not completely because I knew she was quiet around other people. I ended up moving her out of the Kindy a few weeks later when my husband lost his first job. When he found another job, I moved her to a Kindy closer to home, which suited our working hours better.
We went through the same thing again with my daughter not talking to anyone and figured it was just her needing to get used to her surroundings and the constant changes. When the Kindy manager approached me about it and said they were a bit concerned as most kids started talking at most by the 3rd month, yet my daughter had already been with them for 6 months. She said they would have to get some help from the Ministry of Education with the situation, to come and see if their services would be useful. Not being from New Zealand, I had no understanding of what this meant nor what it would mean for my daughter. I felt anxious. Life was hectic…it did not feel like I had work/life balance at all. I was trying amidst everything else to keep my job while our residency application was being processed. I had bullies at work who made being there every day, a living hell but I fought tooth and nail to keep my job because I knew my family’s fate depended on it. With that said, I couldn’t wholeheartedly focus on whatever it was that was going on with my daughter at that point in time, no matter how much I wanted to.
Looking for answers and connecting the dots
Having this raised as a growing concern, I felt a bit helpless. I started an internet search for “Children who don’t talk” and started clicking on all the links. I also found this site on Selective mutism. What I was reading made so much sense and sounded very much like my daughter. I then saved one of the articles and sent it off to the Kindy Manager saying “Would you agree that this sounds like Kathryn?”
The next afternoon when I picked Kathryn up from Kindy, the centre Manager stopped me. We were both consumed with mixed emotions because this made so much sense but neither of us had heard of it before, dealt with it or had any idea what to do next. We discussed the matter a little further and agreed that she would contact the Ministry and add the bit of information I had given her. We needed their guidance and most important of all, we needed to know how we could (if need be) help Kathryn with this.
I met with the lady from the Ministry (Claire) a few days later and we discussed our home situation, Kindy and just her general interaction with others. There were no red flags but I did point out that, because of the comments and line of questioning thus far, I was beginning to feel as if the suspicion was there of my daughter possibly being abused. I assured her that this was not the case and that she was welcome to do whatever assessment was needed. She reassured me that because she had dealt with such cases before, it was perfectly normal for others to assume this to be the case as they had no other explanation. If there were any issues, she would pick it up.
We agreed that she would do visits to the Kindy and unobtrusively watch and observe Kathryn with others. At the end of it, she would make suggestions to the Kindy teachers on how to handle the situation as well as myself and my husband.
After Claire’s assessment and spending a few hours a week at the centre, her conclusion was that Kathryn, in fact, does have Selective Mutism and the only way to deal with it would be to help her get to a place where she is comfortable in her surroundings. To not force the issue of her talking but to rather include her in activities without any pressure. Claire had discussions with the centre manager who in turn spoke to the staff and they put strategy’s in place that would help them with all they needed to do in terms of Kathryn’s learning. For a while, I felt a bit sad for my daughter because, from the outside, it appeared that she had no friends. I desperately wanted her to have a little friend and it didn’t help when I dropped her off in the morning, to see her crying and looking absolutely miserable. I felt like the worst mother ever for leaving her in a place where I knew she didn’t want to be (It broke my heart but since I went through this with my boys at that age, I knew it would pass…but somehow this was different). I would look at other kids being dropped off by their parents, all happy go lucky and immediately going to their friends, playing and laughing…I wanted that for her too. I wondered if she would ever make friends and just felt an incredible need to protect and shelter her from everything that was going on at that point in time.
As it turns out, Kathryn had made 2 friends, Mirilia and Hana. The three of them became close and for the next 2 years, these 2 little girls became her voice. Without anyone telling them, Kathryn would respond to questions by whispering to her friends and they, in turn, would repeat it to the teachers. It was a way of communication and the barrier had been broken…