I asked my ten year old if I could share this story, because after all it is her story not mine. She answered emphatically ‘yes’ adding that ‘make you you say that ‘everybody’s voice needs heard mum’ So I’ve made sure to get that bit in first.
So let me give you some background:
This is Naomi, my daughter. She is a twin with her brother having very complex needs including severe autism, epilepsy and severe learning difficulties. He can not speak verbally, which makes her statement about ‘everybody’s voice needs heard’ even more significant and powerful. Naomi herself is also diagnosed autistic with a further diagnosis of anxiety and an eating disorder. She also has a condition known as selective mutism: in many situations Naomi is so overcome with anxiety she is mute.
One of the places she has always been mute in is school. She started education at just two and a half and when she was first enrolled in nursery they didn’t believe me when I said she had a wide vocabulary and spoke clearly. She showed no signs of that in the nursery setting and in her two and a half years at two different nurseries she never once spoke a word: not one single word. She never sang a nursery rhyme, never answered a question and never even spoke to any other child. She smiled, cried and took part in some activities but she just never opened her mouth. By four she was formally diagnosed with the speech condition selective mutism.
At home she continued to gain language quickly and used it confidently. Her voice was clear, strong and beautiful and it was hard to imagine the idea that no-one else was able to hear this.
Naomi started school at five and continued to go all day at school without speaking. While her school were very inclusive and supportive, despite all sorts of inventive ways of easing her anxiety, Naomi continued to find it too difficult to speak. She did have one friend and by her second year in school she slowly began to speak to her one friend, though only outside of the classroom walls, primarily in the playground. This was only by whispers so that no-one else could hear.
She would tell me that she wanted to speak but whenever she opened her mouth the words just didn’t come out. She said it was like they just disappeared. She learnt to adapt to a life of mutism is school and her peers gave up on trying to get her to speak by half way through year 1.
Nativity plays came and went, as did class assemblies, but she could never have a speaking part. I knew she could speak but I seemed to be the only one. It was like we had this secret life at home where she would talk away but outside the home her voice disappeared and she lived a life of silence.
She would be given reading book after reading book yet whatever teacher she had they never once heard her read. Her year 1 teacher hoped her year 2 teacher might find the key to open her up. She didn’t. Her year three teacher was fantastic, but still Naomi was unable to speak. Her year four teachers had no luck either. No-one failed, it just wasn’t to be. Naomi wasn’t ready.
Naomi would often say how she would like to answer her friends, or join in games or read in class but mostly she just became used to the fact ‘I don’t talk’ and it became just how it was. Then one night three weeks ago she came out of school and I knew something was wrong. She cried the whole walk home. She cried most of that evening and the next night and the next night too. It was the week before Burns night, a traditional celebration in Scotland of a well known poet. Schools often mark the occasion by having children recite Scottish poems and Naomi’s school were no exception. This was Naomi’s fifth year of having such a task, every year prior being met with ‘I don’t talk’ and that was that. But this year something changed: Naomi loved the poem so much she wanted to memorise and recite it like her peers!
She actually wanted to speak!
But wanting to speak wasn’t enough. She still could not bridge that mental and physical gap. She couldn’t overcome her all consuming anxiety. That was the cause of the tears: the conflicting desire of wanting to do something so badly but knowing she couldn’t.
It was heartbreaking.
Then one morning I had an idea. I suggested it to Naomi and her tears turned to excitement. When the class were asked to chose a partner to practice their poems with and no-one chose her she just sat alone silently learning the poem to herself. She knew why her peers hadn’t chosen her and she wasn’t upset at them.
Naomi practiced. I practiced. I felt like our secret was closer than ever. Together we had a plan, though I had no idea if it would work.
Then three weeks ago, on Monday 21st of January, the night before my birthday, Naomi and myself performed that poem as if we were on that stage at school. Naomi was relaxed in her pyjamas in her own room. She spoke clearly and confidently having spent hours memorising the task by heart. On the chair in front of us was my iPad and I pressed record.
As we watched it back Naomi smiled and said simply ‘I did it.’
I asked if I could send it to her Head Teacher. She agreed and requested I also share on my Facebook page. But she wasn’t ready for her teacher or her class to hear her yet.
The next morning she woke and announced suddenly ‘Mum, I would like my teacher to hear my voice now. Can she see the video today?’
So I took her to school five minutes early and her teacher watched the video directly from my iPad. She unashamedly cried. She asked Naomi if she wanted the class to see it. Naomi smiled and nodded.
The following day, on Wednesday 23rd January 2019 a class of nine and ten year olds in a school in Scotland witnessed something very very special. As the pairs of children in turn recited their poems to the class and Naomi sat in silence cheering them on, the teacher ended the session with a little clip that changed everything.
For the first time in five years Naomi’s classmates heard her voice for the first time ever, as she casually and effortlessly recited the same piece they had all been learning, via a video playback of her recording at home.
Some children watched open mouthed, some cried. Every single one cheered and many hugged her.
Two days later, with Naomi’s approval, the Head Teacher showed that video to her entire school. Naomi told me staff and children were in tears.
Naomi gained every award going that week: star of the week, Head Teacher’s award and even an invite to have hot chocolate with the Head for going above and beyond!
Two weeks have since passed. Naomi is still selective mute. She’s still very anxious and still autistic. She hasn’t spoken yet in class directly or to her peers.
But they, and now the world, know that she can.
If and when she is ready she may one day speak in person. There is no pressure.
The fact is she did it. She broke seven years of silence in the only way she could. She proved that her voice counts. She proved she could.
Her message is strong and powerful and needs shared.
‘Mum, make sure you you say that everybody’s voice needs heard.’
She says it better than I ever could.
Here is that special video. Here is the moment my daughter broke seven years of silence.