Friday, July 29, 2016

Life out Loud

Many of you know that our boy Truman struggled with something called Selective Mutism from the ages of two to six.

More than mere shyness, Selective Mutism is an extreme form of anxiety which renders kids unable to speak in social settings. With regard to what Truman named his “talking problem,” our boy never spoke a word to any adults outside our immediate family: not his grandparents, aunts or uncles or his teachers during all of his nursery school and kindergarten years. To his few close school friends, he spoke readily. At home he was a silly chatterbox, goofy and rambunctious, filled with life and laughter. He never stopped talking!

In public, he was a different boy; his face frozen with fear, his expression became flat. I remember his mouth would remain tightly shut until he felt the need to say something that couldn’t wait for home, and then he would whisper the words into my ear. It broke my heart to see this boy lock his emotions and thoughts away inside with his voice. He had so much to say. “I want to talk,” he would say. One morning over breakfast he told us, “I always talk in my dreams.”

The summer before beginning first grade, Truman spent a week at Camp Courageous, a therapeutic camp designed to help kids with Selective Mutism find their voices. The camp incorporated a form of exposure therapy where kids slowly increased their speaking, raising their volume along with their comfort level while losing themselves so much in their engaging camp activities that the words began to spill out. At least that’s the way it worked for Truman.

Positive reinforcement at the camp was integral and constant. While working for prizes and stickers, kids played games like Red Light / Green Light, and Telephone. They were distributed irresistible walkie-talkies. One day, dogs came to camp, and each child read to his or her dog. Toward the end of the week, the campers had progressed enough to dine together at the Old Spaghetti Factory, where each child summoned the courage to voice their menu preference. On the last day, the kids celebrated with a swim party with so much noisy fun that no one would have guessed the struggle the children had in common. Amazed and misty-eyed, we parents watched in disbelief.

Three weeks after attending camp, Truman began first grade with a surprise for everyone: the full use of his voice. Few at school had even known what he sounded like, and at first, little heads whipped around as kids realized the new voice they were hearing was Truman’s. “You TALK now!” they exclaimed. Oh, he talked. Imagine the feeling of liberation – he unleashed that sweet voice! By the end of the first week, his teacher told me, “Truman is now the loudest kid on the playground.” He started receiving regular corrections for talking out of turn in class. He couldn’t shut up, and everyone was thrilled.

Our family lived through that life-changing week four years ago. This week he has returned to what is now called Camp Out Loud, this time as a role model who wanted to show the campers that full recovery is possible. I can imagine the sense of comfort and inspiration the young campers feel to spend time with a kid who understands their struggle. When I dropped him off on the first day, I stuck around for a few minutes and watched the campers silently interacting. (You'd be surprised how well kids can communicate without their voices — Truman himself used to be an accomplished mime!) Observing one little girl nervously whisper to a young camp assistant momentarily triggered my Mommy PTSD; the memories and worry and feelings of helplessness resurfaced in an instant. I would have thought those feelings were tucked further away.

Truman has looked forward for months to returning to Camp Out Loud. He can relate to these sweet campers who are learning to find their place in the world. Only another child who has lived with Selective Mutism can fully understand the struggle, and he remembers well how he felt locked in his silent world. I used to say that camp gave Truman back his voice. But that’s not quite right. Camp provided the structure and opportunity for Truman to face his fears – the courage was all Truman’s.

On the drive home, I asked Truman how this camp changed his life. “If I didn’t go to that camp, I might still be a shy kid with a talking problem,” he said, his young actor’s voice confident and strong.

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