More Than Shyness

Selective mutism kept me silent; a caring counselor helped me speak.

by Zi Qi Li


“Uno out! See? I am better than you!” I laughed as I slapped down my last “plus 4 wild” card, beating my twin sister in yet another round of Uno. We would play for hours, our conversation swirling from the game to everything else. She and I often talked way past our bedtimes, and my parents had to tell us to be quiet and go to sleep. 

My parents joined us one day. “How do you play?” my dad asked. 

“You have to match the colors and the numbers,” I confidently explained, as I passed out cards. They got the hang of it, and the games became very intense. We’d shout in a mixture of English and Cantonese. 

“Mom, it’s your turn, go!” 

“No! The card says reverse, so it’s Dad’s turn!” 

I played Uno at school, too, but it was different. When I’d put down my last card, winning the round, I didn’t shout “Uno out!” I nervously placed my final card onto the pile, and stared at the other players in silence. 

“Why didn’t you say Uno out?” my classmate asked in one game. “Oh, right, you can’t talk.” I was embarrassed, but I didn’t say anything. “Just tap your head instead of Uno out,” she suggested. Next time I won, I tapped my head, ashamed. I knew I looked silly, but the very thought of speaking made my stomach churn, my palms sweat, and my eyes water.  

A Rubik’s Cube

Starting in kindergarten, I could not speak with my classmates or teachers. I could ask, “How much?” at a store, but otherwise speaking to strangers was very hard. Whenever anyone asked me to speak at school, I felt a gut-wrenching surge of fear and nodded or pantomimed instead. 

The more I considered talking, the worse it got. “If I speak now, they’ll expect me to keep talking.” And that meant leaving a comfort zone where nobody expected me to speak. So the anxiety snowballed; it got harder and harder to imagine being a kid who talked at school. 

The kindergarten teachers chalked it up to “shyness,” but as I grew older, my silence elicited more concern. My only means of communication were head nods, shrugs, or small whispers to teachers when I absolutely had to answer. When teachers looked confused, other kids would jump in and tell them, “She doesn’t talk.” I felt relief when the other kids explained.

It was hard making friends. I desperately wished to join in and daydreamed about the conversations I would have. But the longer my silence dragged on, the harder it got. I didn’t want to be the center of attention, which I would be if I spoke. But I didn’t want to be silent and invisible either. 

“Just say hi! It’s easy, come on.” Classmates treated me like a Rubik’s cube to solve. I shook my head no, and awkwardly smiled, wishing they’d leave me alone. “It’s been like six years and you still haven’t talked!” 

The more pressure I felt to speak, the more I would hyperventilate and sweat. I’d watch the people urging me to speak with dread, hoping that they would give up, which they all eventually did. I never gave in. Nothing could get me to talk—not a zero on my report card nor the food bribery one teacher tried. 

Once I got home, I was fine. It was as if I was living a secret identity. 

Not completely secret though: My parents learned that I wasn’t speaking at school from my report cards and parent-teacher conferences. My family, especially my traditional Chinese dad, was angry at my disobedience. When teachers reported that I was too quiet and needed to speak up in class, my dad would tell me that there was something wrong with me. He’d take me to a store and push me to talk to the cashier, and wouldn’t let me come home until I did. I was able to talk a little bit to strangers outside school, but it made me anxious. 

It didn’t help that during his arguments with my mom, my dad blamed her for my silence at school. I felt like a burden to my parents, as well as a disappointment compared to my twin sister, who did talk at school. 

Callie Gives It a Name

Near the start of 5th grade, a woman came into my class and introduced herself as Callie. She brought me to a cozy room and we sat together. She pulled out a cartoon children’s book and read from it about a girl who felt scared of talking to other kids around her. Callie explained this was called selective mutism, a childhood anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations. 

I stared at the book in amazement. I could not believe that there was a name for my situation. Callie told me that I wasn’t alone, and that many other kids faced the same troubles that I did. Furthermore, she let me communicate with her on a whiteboard she provided. 

What felt at the time like a failure was the first of many small successes.

When I got home, I rushed to my laptop and googled “selective mutism.” I found a video of a girl who said she overcame selective mutism by opening up to people in high school, which later led her to pursue modeling. She said trying new things and taking risks helped her speak. I was amazed by her transformation and wondered if I could change too. 

I began meeting up with Callie once a week in that same office, communicating with her through whiteboards, laptops and writing on paper. We played games, talked about what we did during the week, and discussed my struggles, using our nonverbal tools. One day, Callie brought in a plastic bin full of colorful string and asked me if I wanted to learn how to make a friendship bracelet. Arts and crafts was one of my favorite things to do, so I scribbled “Yes.” 

Callie taught me how to knot strings into a simple design. I uneasily copied her movements and completed several loose rows. Mine looked like a toddler’s work compared to hers, but I was happy to learn without worrying about being forced to talk. 

Callie was an oasis in my general stress around school. My ELA teacher, Kate, randomly chose one person to read a book recommendation in front of the whole class every Friday, and she made no exception for me. As Friday approached, I suffered anxiety attacks about being picked. I had already gone a few times before, and I’d stand quietly and stare at the class like a deer in headlights until Kate finally let me sit down. Only then would she either read my book report or pick another classmate to read it. I’d cry afterwards, feeling complete shame and embarrassment.

But as the weeks moved by, Callie’s encouragement began to work. She made me feel less alone with my struggles and offered me the support that my family couldn’t. Callie was extremely patient and kind, which allowed me to be truly vulnerable for the first time. She knew how to encourage me to take risks without pressuring me. 

Callie occasionally asked if I was OK with whispering to her and gave me the freedom to decide. “Do you want to practice whispering today?” I’d shake my head no and write on paper instead, which she accepted.

Whispers Into Courage

Three months after we’d started meeting, I had my first success. I wrote down that I wanted to try whispering. Callie suggested I read something rather than make conversation. Before, I couldn’t utter a single sound around her, and my throat felt like it was closing up. Whispering felt less intimidating, a middle ground. She handed me a short children’s book. 

I held the book close, my eyes locked onto the text. My hands sweated onto the cover. One second…Five seconds…Ten seconds…I took a deep breath, turned the pages, and whispered the whole book. It was quiet, but I felt loud and proud as I read those words. As I closed the book, relief washed over me. Callie looked amazed and praised me for doing so well. 

Callie’s support and encouragement filled a void in me, and also introduced the idea that I could change, that I could talk, that it was worth trying.  

Those small whispers turned into the courage to read my book recommendation out loud a few months later, in March. I felt like I could finally talk in front of the class. 

The awaited day came, and I stood in front of the class, gripping my paper tightly. My classmates were sitting on the rug, looking up at me. I tried my best to only focus on my paper, just like I had practiced. I swallowed hard as I tried to whisper the first few sentences of my book recommendation. My vocal cords felt like they were on fire, fuel for the blaze of my anxiety. I looked up from the paper and saw the faces of my classmates. 

My confidence slipped away. Whispering to Callie was a breeze compared to speaking with 20 sets of eyes on me. I stared at the class with tears welling up in my eyes. I whispered three words. 

Kate escorted me out of the classroom, and congratulated me on my efforts while tears flooded down my face. “You did a great job. I’m so proud that you tried!” she said with enthusiasm, while I shook my head no. I embarrassed myself. I barely said anything, I thought. 

The next day, I hoped that my classmates would forget my fiasco of a book recommendation. But in the morning, I heard a classmate talking to Kate about it. “I’m surprised Zi Qi tried to talk.” He then looked at me and said with a smile, “Good job.”  

What felt at the time like a failure was the first of many small successes. With Callie’s help, I took more risks and made tiny steps toward socializing normally throughout the rest of the school year. I challenged myself to whisper “Hi,” “Bye,” “Good morning,” and “Good afternoon” to my teachers, and to talk to cashiers in stores. Callie’s patient support didn’t erase the gut-wrenching fear, but it gave me a safe place to practice talking—within the school.

Then Callie told me she was leaving the school in May. I was devastated. She was my emotional support, and I wasn’t sure how I would move on without her. On her last day, I gave her a letter. It began, “Thank you so much for helping me talk at school. Whenever I felt sad, seeing you always made me feel better.” 

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