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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
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Relating Selectively

Karl Gompf

Little Amy stopped talking. She just stopped talking, at four and a half years old. She knew how to talk because she had learned well. She loved to talk, but she just quit.

When I met Amy she was ten and her silence had baffled everyone, particularly everyone at school. Those baffled included: her teachers, the principal, the psychologist, the mental health worker, the psychiatrist, various other medical personnel, the police summoned when Amy stole some candy, and even the school janitor who knew Amy’s family. The least baffled seemed to be Lorraine, the Child and Youth Care worker assigned to this non-talking child. Lorraine was told: Amy will probably never talk again, she is very stubborn, she is controlling and defiant, she has no friends, she is what we call a selective mute, just be a friend to her and don’t expect much.

So Lorraine started hanging out with Amy at a point in time when all attempts, all prodding, pushing, cajoling, and even bribing had failed. Not a single word had been uttered by Amy for six years. Lorraine decided that her approach would be different. No one-hour sessions with the games that had been tried. No direct focus on the non-talking. Just being with Amy with no expectations and no judgements. They often went to the Pizza Hut, Amy’s favourite. They walked in the park, silently. They listened to music, silently. They played hopscotch, silently. No words from Amy, few words from Lorraine.

Lorraine’s birthday was approaching. She invited Amy to go to the Pizza Hut for lunch to celebrate. In a tiny, tiny voice Amy whispered her first words in six years. “Could we go to the A & W instead?” followed by “What do you want for your birthday, Lorraine?” Excited with this talking breakthrough, but wondering if an over-reaction could be detrimental, Lorraine calmly said, “Amy, I’d like just one word from you.”

On Lorraine’s birthday, at the A&W, there were two words softly spoken by Amy – Happy Birthday.

Slowly and surely Amy began to talk, but only to Lorraine at first. Although it was documented in the school files that not much was known about Amy, here’s what she told Lorraine: “I like clouds. My favourite colour is yellow. I want to be a doctor. I don’t much like carrots. My favourite restaurant used to be Pizza Hut but now it’s A&W. I think my mom is pretty. There is dog hair on the seats of your car. I know exactly when I stopped talking. I like to skip in the rain. I’m pretty good at diving. I’m not so good at spelling. My favourite runners are Nike. I’m glad my dad doesn’t live with us anymore. I can make a noise like a rooster. I’d like to have a friend someday. When I’m eleven I think I'll be a fast runner. My dad really hurt me. Someday I’d like to fly.”

I was invited to a meeting of those previously baffled by this non-verbal child. It included the teachers, the principal, the psychologist, the mental health worker, the psychiatrist, various other medical personnel, the police (summoned when Amy stole some candy) and the school janitor who knew Amy’s family. I was impressed that everyone seemed to be genuinely interested in hearing from the person who knew Amy the best, the Child and Youth Care worker, Lorraine. The unspoken title for the meeting was "How did we get Amy to talk after six years of silence?" I sat quietly at the meeting, anticipating a long session on the topic of selective mutism. To my surprise it was a short meeting summed up by two statements that showed considerable wisdom.

From the psychiatrist: “We really don’t know much about selective mutism.”

From the school janitor: "You know, I think Amy started talking because of her relationship with Lorraine. I know I like to talk to people who care about me.”


Amy talks a lot now. She watches clouds. She skips in the rain. She runs fast in her yellow Nikes. She has one friend. She talks about how her dad hurt her. She still wants to fly someday.

Lorraine is working with an eight year old boy who likes to eat bugs.

I continue to learn that relational focused interventions work. Child and youth care practitioners know this.

This feature: Gompf, K. (2004). Relating selectively. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 17, 1. pp. 77-78.

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