The Child Who Can’t Speak

How can you tell the difference between extreme shyness and a real childhood disorder that could be remedied with some simple steps?

Easily, says Northfield resident Chris Castino, who’s become passionate about bringing Selective Mutism into public awareness.

Shyness vs. a real disorder
“You don’t want to sound the alarm when a four-year-old doesn’t pipe up in class,” says Castino, “But when a child doesn’t fit in the spectrum of normal behavior from really gregarious to really shy, it’s important to notice, because you can nip a lot in the bud.”

Castino, who was first made aware of the disorder five years ago and now serves as a selective mutism consultant, works with parents, principals, school psychologists. She first became interested by volunteering at school and helping a student who suffered from the syndrome, which leaves children unable to speak in class.

“Sometimes these kids come across as being rude because they won’t speak when spoken to or look you in eye,” says Castino. “They’re completely misunderstood.”

Warning signs
On the spectrum of anxiety disorders, selective mutism can mean that a child can speak normally at home, but develops anxiety around speaking in school. Sometimes they can’t eat in the lunchroom or use the restroom, as fear shuts down their ability to function normally. Lack of eye contact – to extent that perhaps even in the class picture they have their eyes down or can’t smile for the camera is another clue. The child might not interact in order to hope not to attract attention to themselves.

“They maintain wonderful friendships, they become almost professional mimes and they get around having to speak. Sometimes the social anxiety wears off, but because they become entrenched as the kid who doesn’t talk, a secondary speech phobia develops,” Castino says.

{loadposition incontent_health7}As they get into third, fourth or fifth grade, children can become isolated if the disorder isn’t treated. Castino uses a variety of games and tactics.

“My favorite is sitting on the floor and doing activities with kids and their peers to get them to take tiny steps,” Castino says. “In one case, I acted as a verbal intermediary who served as a link between the child and others. The child would whisper something in my ear and I would speak out loud for her, something like, `Does anyone else think the chicken nuggets taste like rubber?’ and all the other children would respond back directly to her. This child had a great sense of humor and until then, no one knew it.”

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