Playground Rules

My mom wanted to homeschool me. She wanted to homeschool all three of us (my brother, sister, and I). She had collected flashcards, educational books, and learning games. She was ready to homeschool us in our tiny two-bedroom townhome by the late nineties.

“But I want to go to real school, mommy,” four-year-old me whined. Growing up, I sometimes hated four-year-old me. That comment gifted me with a one-way ticket to fourteen years of public school.

My parents were just poor enough to qualify for the Head Start program, which allowed me to attend pre-school for free. My mom held my hand as she walked me into the classroom…

One of the major warning signs of Selective Mutism usually rears its ugly head at this point in the story, even though the symptom is common with young children in general. I didn’t display this symptom – not the one that involved a huge meltdown when my mom let go of my hand. Perhaps it was because going to school was my idea in the first place.

I remember feeling shy as I was introduced to a room full of strangers. I wouldn’t actually be starting school that day. We were only walking through the motions. A group of kids sat in a circle on the far side of the room, curiously peering over at me. I stared back.

After learning about my disorder in my twenties, I look back at my first public school experience as if it will give me clues. I had always believed my social anxiety hadn’t really begun until the third grade, but now I see the signs as I relive much older memories.

Pre-school is all about learning through play. If a trained professional would have watched me through a one-way mirror, they may have noticed my disorder during these times of play. I played alone – not because the other children didn’t want to play with me, but because I couldn’t relax in their vicinity. Not only did I play alone, but I played quietly. If I used words, they were mouthed or whispered. If an adult or another child came near me, my mouth would refuse to move.

My favorite station was the sensory table, but I didn’t like to share it with others. If someone was at the table with me (whether it was filled with sand or water), I would barely play with the substance, making very small or minimal movements, careful to not disrupt the other student.

I have a very specific memory of Miss P wanting to interact with me while I played with the plastic kitchen set. She would sit at a table and ask me to cook her something. I never spoke during this memory as I shakily placed a lump of plastic spaghetti in front of her. She pretended to eat it, exclaiming how delicious the food was. I felt my lips curl into a smile.

At the dress up station, I would quickly dress in a costume, pose for a split second so Miss P could see, and quickly rip the outfit off before anybody else could see or comment.

Playtime was when my disorder was the most apparent.

A year or so later J is holding a Barbie in her hand, having created an entire backstory for the doll. I look down at the Barbie in my hand, unsure how to do the same. We’re sitting on the pink carpet in J’s room, J and the other girls staring at me in disbelief. I haven’t said anything – I can’t bring myself to. I want to play like the other girls, but I can’t move my lips. All I can do is move my hands- to make my Barbie walk or hop or change her clothes. The other girls think I’m not playing or that I’m bored or that I don’t enjoy playing with Barbies. Playtime has ceased.

Flash forward a few more years. I’m in my cousin’s backyard. He’s dressed in plastic chain mail, a grey-painted wooden sword in his hands. He wants to play, to battle like in medieval times. But this was a role-playing game and I had no idea what to say or how to act. My cousin grew angry with me. I didn’t want to play anymore.

Even playing alone with dolls in front of family members was a quiet affair. I always kept any verbal creativity from being overheard. For a few days as a tween, I stayed with my grandmother. She would watch as I sat in the living room with all my stuffed animals splayed out, having them interact with each other via my own brainwaves. When my mother came to pick me up, my grandmother went on about how good and quiet I was. I didn’t bother anybody and would play silently with my Webkinz, at least one of which she had bought me. She had barely heard a peep out of me the entire stay.

“Play is essential to development,” a 2007 article* by Kenneth Ginsburg, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics states, “it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”

…But what happens with the social development of mute or selectively mute children during play? I wonder…

*Article Citation: Kenneth R. Ginsburg, the Committee on Communications, & the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2007). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 1

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