“A ‘hello’ is so easy to say. But to them, if they are able to say ‘hello’ to you, it’s already a big step,” said Ms Janet Wong, a mother of three. She is a primary caregiver to her 26-year-old son, Mr Nigel Ng, who was diagnosed with selective mutism at the age of 9.
Selective mutism is a rare anxiety condition where a person fears in having to speak in some social settings.
Janet often received feedback from teachers who observed that her son is not talking or responding in class. However, she found it puzzling as he communicates with his family members at home. Juggling with her previous job as an insurance agent, she also often felt frustrated with the multiple calls from teachers and having to rush down to school right after an appointment.
Janet was first prompted by a teacher about Nigel’s unusual quietness when he was in primary three. She then decided to bring her son to the Institute of Mental Health’s Child Guidance Clinic. There, he was diagnosed with selective mutism. It was the first time that both Janet and her spouse had heard about this mental health condition.
The journey was challenging for both parents and they learnt through the hard way, she said. Attributing to the lack of a support group then, they relied on the Internet and his psychiatrists to learn more about this mental health condition. They were also in denial, often questioning why he could not speak a word.
Janet also recalls Nigel commenting that she did not understand him or what he was going through. Undefeated, her mother's instinct spurred her to “walk into his world” - learning meltdown coping techniques from his psychiatrists and psychologists; enrolling in parent-child events with Nigel and even working alongside social workers.
She also supports him by training him to take the public transport. Initially, both parents followed him as he learnt to travel. When he started commuting alone, he would sometimes get flustered about taking the wrong train. Even then, he would not dare to ask over the phone, preferring to send texts than to make a phone call. Overtime, Janet learnt to send texts to him instead. Now, he is confident and able to travel independently.
Nigel started to grow from strength to strength. To enable more people to gain a better understanding about selective mutism, Nigel shared his life story through his book, Silence is Not Golden, which was published in 2016. Two years later, he founded DoorSING, which is a social enterprise committed to supporting persons with selective mutism and their caregivers. All this time, Janet plays a supporting role to her son.