Last week the Child Mind Institute hosted 22 children with selective mutism (SM) and their families as part of the weeklong Brave Buddies summer program. During these exciting and intense five days, which followed the contours of a regular school day, children who could previously speak in few, if any, social situations outside of the home made remarkable progress. By the end of the week these brave and wonderful children were ordering ice cream by themselves from complete strangers! At the same time, their parents attended training sessions to learn the skills that will ensure that gains made in this inspiring week are not lost during the school year.
Some of these children had literally never spoken in school. Some had been able to speak to fewer than 10 adults in the world. Some have had accidents because they couldn’t ask to go to the bathroom, or have found themselves on the wrong bus and couldn’t tell the driver. The list of awkward and dangerous situations goes on and on. That’s why it was such a thrill to see each and every child answer multiple questions each and every day, announce out loud their activity preferences, ask questions for a scavenger hunt. We saw children asking for help—a simple but critical task.
The success of this Brave Buddies session demonstrates clearly that our vision of delivering treatment more intensively and frequently is working. But what may be even more heartening than these gains is the knowledge that they will continue with the help of the wonderful parents we work with. I received an email from a mother who reported that her daughter wanted to get ice cream on the way home on Friday.
“I told her that we should first practice what she will order. She resisted at first, requesting that I order it for her. I told her politely that we can either practice the order now and have the ice cream, or we can practice the order at home and she can then have the ice cream at a different time. She decided to order it now, although I was not sure at that point if she would muster the strength to talk.
“I am very proud to inform you that for the very first time outside Brave Buddies—she ordered the ice cream on her own!! She answered questions about vanilla vs. chocolate, cup vs. cone, and choice of sprinkles. I was stunned and we are absolutely ecstatic about this!!”
During the week, every child answered every question with the relentless encouragement, support, and positive reinforcement of our staff. Was it easy? Sometimes, yes. Was it tortuous? Sometimes, yes! But the children rose to the occasion, and will continue to with their parents’ skillful support.
As a clinician, this is the kind of experience that makes me happiest, and it’s the reason working with children is such a pleasure: Even when the disorder is daunting and debilitating, the right treatment can be the start of a profound transformation.