Speak for yourself

spiked-TV: It's not just the two mute children in Help Me to Speak who fear the reaction their words might get.

Shirley Dent

Topics Culture

‘But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.’ GK Chesterton

Not having spoken yet was the biggest problem for two children in Channel 4’s Help Me to Speak. This was not because of any physical impairment or learning disability but because they were in the grip of a condition known as ‘selective mutism’: both could speak clearly but they chose when and to whom they spoke. There are plenty of parents who would find nothing unusual in getting ‘the silent treatment’.

Selective mutism is not as simple as that. And not just because of the strange silence these young children lock themselves into. Selective mutism is very much a condition of today. It is not just about childish phobias; it’s also about adult anxiety. In the programme, we are told that bubbly but silent Madeleine, in her first year at primary school, is ‘frightened to talk’ and that she has ‘a timidity of talking’. Nine year-old Robert has an ‘overwhelming fear of speaking specifically related to school’.

Being scared was a worldview that we returned to again and again in Help Me to Speak. Understandably the parents of Robert and Madeleine were fearful of what the future held for their children and their frustration at the way in which their offspring were closing themselves off from the world was often touching. But the way in which each set of parents projected the future for their mute children as a doom-laden one sometimes seemed to speak more of a general pessimism and anxiety about the future than about the present problem of bright but silent kids. From fears of bullying, to not being able to form an adult sexual relationship, to not being able to go to university (Helen Keller may have had something to say about that), a present problem became writ large as a damned and awful destiny.

What was really telling was the way in which the children in the programme picked up on this idea of fear at the heart of things. One of Robert’s classmates comments that ‘There’s obviously something wrong with him. He’s scared or frightened’. Robert himself, on having spoken in a church play and then realising that a classmate had heard him speak (part of Robert’s code of silence was that nobody associated with school should hear his voice) said the experience was as ‘if someone sneaks up on you and starts shouting’. It’s worth lingering on this, as it is unconsciously illuminating not just about Robert’s selective mutism but of our general anxiety about speaking.

The fear is not about what we will say, if we have anything worth saying or not. It’s about the rough-edged world shouting back at us. It’s not about a fear of saying something but a fear of speaking with each other, of not being entirely able to predict or control how strangers will react to our words.

The speech therapist who eventually helped Madeleine to speak explained to Madeleine and her mum that ‘Your voice comes out beautifully at home because its nice and just as you want it to be’. This seems like a sound understanding of a little child’s worries about the big bad world outside of the safety and security of the family home. But it’s also how many adults have come to understand their relations with that big bad world.

And for children, our fears just complicate things more. Sometimes the solutions are simple and about what we do in the here and now. Help Me to Speak had a happy ending for both children. Madeleine with the help of a speech therapist was talking about her guinea pig’s love of carrots to the camera crew by the end of the programme. Robert was given a course of Prozac and was soon chatting away with his schoolmates.

But hang on. Was it the miracle of Prozac that helped Robert or something even more beautiful and simple than modern medicine? The start of the Prozac course coincided with Robert’s promotion to captain of the school football team and a growing sense of frustration that he couldn’t direct the players on the pitch. His first clearly spoken words came on the pitch when he organised a football tournament and frankly after that you couldn’t shut him up.

So, I suspect football held the answer all along. Some amongst my colleagues would probably be inclined to shout at me ‘Well we knew that already’.

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