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I’m a Believer: or thinking positively about children with selective mutism. With help from The Monkees, Little Richard, Jayne Mansfield and Eva Cassidy

Date posted: Friday 11th October 2013

The Monkees

I remember when The Monkees first went massive in the UK. I was minding my own business in the playground of St. Ursula’s Primary School in Harold Hill.  I was nine. A big girl approached me at random and demanded an answer to the burning question of the day: ‘Which do you like: The Beatles or The Monkees?’  She was ten and I was under pressure. Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway had yet to be written, so I was scared. My response was, ‘Why are you asking?’  Years later I attended a course on lecturing and explaining, and learned that this is a useful technique for dealing with questions from the audience that you don’t fully understand, or suspect that the questioner is trying to catch you out. I was 27.

Me: Why are you asking?

Her: I’m asking ‘cos if you give the right answer you can be my boyfriend. If you get it wrong I’m going to pinch you.

Me: The Monkees.

Her: Oh Yea? Prove it. What’s your best Monkees song?

Me: (Panicking, because I had never heard The Monkees: but sensing I could bluff my way into this girl’s affections.) I Love My Dog.

Her: Never heard of it.

Me: (Sensing an advantage). My big brother just bought it and it’s really good.

Her: Wow! Lucky for you that I want to believe you. You can be my boyfriend for the rest of playtime!

Me: Thanks, but can we just hold hands, and no kissing?

The Monkees: I’ll see it when I believe it!

Around about the same time I had a very confusing experience. I was in a family who only watched BBC TV. My mother told us that ITV had programmes that were ‘Not Suitable’. This included wrestling: where paunchy men in swimming trunks theatrically pretended to hurt each other in front of a small audience of northern grannies. (Boxing, which was on the BBC, was OK: even though muscular men beat each other to a bloody pulp in front of a baying crowd.) Films on Sunday afternoons, which featured ‘suggestive language and kissing’, were an absolute no no. I now know that if you prohibit children from watching something on telly and give a hint that it is a bit naughty, as soon as your back is turned they are going to try and find out what it’s all about. So at three o’clock the next Sunday I sneaked into the front room while mum and dad were in the garden. And got really confused.

The forbidden fruit I took a tiny bite out of was the classic 1957 film The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield as a blonde bombshell who doesn’t realise why she is the object of so much male attention.

Jayne Mansfield: it’s not her fault

I was flooded with questions: What can’t the girl help? Why was Little Richard singing about a girl when Jayne Mansfield is unmistakeably a lady? Why did the milk bottle in the milkman’s hand explode as the lady walked by? Why did a man’s glasses shatter when he looked at the lady? And why is this film ’not suitable?’

My Dad came in. ‘Now Michael, you know that’s ITV and not suitable. What are you watching? That looks like Little Richard. Let’s watch him singing and then you can switch the telly to BBC, or go outside.’ I switched channels. Arthur Negus was explaining why a table with Queen Anne’s legs was worth a small fortune. BBC 2 had not been invented; otherwise I could have watched Frank Muir being very clever on any number of panel game shows hosted by Robert Robinson.

Years later I was a Speech and Language Therapy student visiting a secondary school in London, to observe a social skills group for teenagers. Sitting quietly in the corner of the room was a girl of about 13. She had a smile on her face, but looked very nervous. ‘People say she’s an elective mute’, whispered my supervising therapist. ‘She’s here to see if she can pick up some social skills from this group.’ Everyone was practicing shouting ‘No!’ at the tops of their voices. I was 22 and this was the late 70s.

I thought a lot about this girl. Her name was Molly and she had been in the UK for six months: having moved from Wicklow in Ireland. She was living with her parents and her little sister in one room in bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless families. She had very dark eyes, which you could just about make out while she busily studied the carpet, and tried to avoid making eye contact with me by hiding behind her long dark hair.

No one had heard Molly speak in school, and teachers were describing her in the staff room as ‘stubborn, manipulative and controlling’. A man in a suit announced, ‘I read somewhere that elective mutes are silently crying out for help: so they can draw attention to some trauma or ongoing dysfunction in the family. If only we could get that elective mute to speak:  then we might be able to unlock some of those secrets. It’s so difficult when girls choose to be silent. You don’t know what they are thinking, and the rest of the class pick up on their negative attitude and behaviour, because they sense that the teacher’s authority is being challenged.’

Have you ever had that experience when a song suddenly pops into your head and you don’t know why? I was hearing the Girl Can’t Help It. My supervisor didn’t say anything, but looked very uncomfortable. Back at the clinic she asked me what I thought of Molly.

Me: Could it be that she can’t help being silent? Might she be afraid? She looked very unhappy and vulnerable. Maybe she imagines that other youngsters will laugh at her Irish accent? Might she have a speech and language difficulty? Or a hearing loss?

Therapist: Good questions. How might we find out?

Me: Visit her at home and ask her parents?

Therapist: Good thinking.

Me: Who was that man in the staffroom, telling us that Molly was a problem?

Therapist: The Deputy Head Teacher.

Me: Where would you start?

Therapist: Believing that Molly would love to talk, but at the moment doesn’t know how to. Then explaining to the Deputy Head that there is no such thing as elective mutism. Children don’t elect or choose to be silent. Better to talk about selective mutism, where certain people or situations create severe anxiety within the child about talking. That might help the Deputy Head become a believer too, so he can spread the message to his colleagues.

Me: (Thinking to myself) Does my supervisor like The Beatles or The Monkees?

I moved to another clinic placement a few weeks later: so never got to find out what happened to Molly. Or if my supervisor succeeded in what are the essential first steps in supporting children with selective mutism: helping adults to believe that this child is doing her best, but has somehow developed a fear of hearing her voice in public; that Molly would love to talk in school, but feels under pressure to speak; that she feels very deeply the negative atmosphere that is growing around her: where adults blame her for having a problem over which she has no control.

I like to think that the Speech and Language Therapist was able to have some influence on the staff. Maybe she helped them find out what subjects Molly enjoyed, and encouraged those subject teachers to take Molly under their wing: by giving her extra support so she could really excel in what she was best at. Or that she visited Molly at home to assess her verbal comprehension and processing skills: just to check that there wasn’t an underlying language difficulty that might be creating and fuelling her anxiety.  Or that she facilitated the member of staff who ran the social skills group to visit Molly at home and build a supportive relationship between family and school.

Whenever I hear I’m a Believer I remind myself of the importance of believing that quiet and anxious children would dearly love to sort out their difficulties, and that we can begin to help by

I grew to love The Monkees, and I’m a Believer is the ‘theme tune’ at the beginning and end of my Supporting Quiet Children training sessions. Because you will see it when you believe it.

And here’s Eva Cassidy Singing Dark Eyed Molly.

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9 responses to “I’m a Believer: or thinking positively about children with selective mutism. With help from The Monkees, Little Richard, Jayne Mansfield and Eva Cassidy”

  1. Angela Blundell says:

    Each week you somehow manage to address the very question we have been talking about in our staff meetings
    Thank you and thank you for the great music

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Angela. You are very kind. Next week’s post is taking shape in my mind, so I can’t promise it will fit in with your staff meeting, but maybe you could make a suggestion?!
      Best wishes
      I’m glad you like the music!

  2. As always rivetting funny and substantial. Simple question: I have a boy who is a selective mute in my (SLD)year 11 class. Currently recording short responses on various voice recorders and playing them back to us.
    Fluent at home. The SALT has just told me he has a diagnosos of ASC and that makes him not a selective mute.
    Intuitively I’m saying he’s someone who may or may not feature on the ASC spectrum AND currently a selective mute.
    All label talk I know but am I right? You can be someone with autism AND be a selective mute?

  3. Trevor says:

    Informative and entertaining, as always.
    Good to see an ‘ole Neil Diamond song resurfacing too.

  4. Clare says:

    Love your blog. Having experienced SM for around 10 years (possibly longer) during my childhood, it is good to know this is something people now talk about (or not!!) It wasn’t something anyone had heard of when I was growing up and, like Molly, I had some very negative responses from adults. In fact, I only discovered the name for it a few years ago when introduced to a child with SM. Great work! Hope it leads to some understanding.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Clare
      I think that teachers are more aware of SM, however silent children are still seen as being ‘controlling and manipulative’ which is the exact opposite of how they are. Their desire to please adults leaves them frozen in the fear that they will make a ‘mistake’ by saying or doing the ‘wrong’ thing.

      I hope you are doing OK now
      Very best wishes
      PS many of my posts are written to increase awareness of how best to help quiet children.

  5. Cyndi Crosby-Morell says:

    I’m currently working with a 6 year old student who is on the Autism Spectrum. His aptitude, receptive, and expressive language skills are all within the 50’s range. He is essentially mute at school but speaks at home (as documented on video). I suspect Selective Mutism coexists with Autism. It is difficult to locate a psychologist who would be trained in treating a child with these complications. Any suggestions on treatment.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hello Cyndi
      Thank you for contacting me. I’m sure that a child with a ‘primary’ disability could also have selective mutism. However, autism is a disability where anxiety about talking is one of the main difficulties. I always avoid describing a child with autism as having SM. There is a practical reason for doing this. These days many teachers and professionals feel confident that they understand ASD and can relax and apply approaches that are helpful. However, as soon as you suggest a child with ASD had mutism, everybody panics and tries to seek specialists in that filed.

      Having said that, I recommend the book I wrote with Maggie Johnson, called ‘Supporting Quiet Children’. Not because I wrote it, but because it is written specifically as a first port of call for teachers like yourself who want to explore why children are quiet. It has 40 practical ideas that you can use straight away.
      hope that is helpful, and please email me on if you want to continue the conversation.
      Good luck!

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