Audrey Whisman was diagnosed with Selective Mutism when she was in 5th Grade. After Audrey’s teachers began to share her challenges with her parents, they soon found their way to the SMart Center. Today, over 10 years after her diagnosis, Audrey is absolutely thriving.

In this episode, Dr. E sits down with Audrey to discuss how she overcame Selective Mutism.

Episode Transcription

Dr. E: Hi there, Audrey. Hi, how are you doing today? I’m good. How are you? Good. I’m super excited. I’m always excited when I do my podcast, but one reason I’m really excited is shining stars are always a big part of what we do. Our center offering hope to others, a big part of Communicamp and I’ve met you.

You’ve been at camp. You’re incredibly diligent. Awesome. You’re just such an amazing person. And I thought

it would be just wonderful. To kind of start this off and you are our first shining star with us today and we’re going to be doing many features throughout. So hi there, Audrey. How are you?

Audrey Whisman: Hi, good.

I’m so excited to be here. I’m so honored to be the first shining star and I’m just excited to talk about my story.

Dr. E: Yeah, we are too. And as I’ve said many, many times, shining stars are a way for us. to help others understand kids, teens, adults can overcome selective mutism. And too often we hear that, Oh, are they ever going to be able to overcome it?

This is the rest of their life. And no, it’s not. I mean, you are testimonial to that. And so we’re excited to talk with you today. I’m excited to talk with you today.

[00:02:58] AUDREY’S STORY

Dr. E: So tell me, tell me a bit about your story now, Audrey, tell me what you’re up to.

Audrey Whisman: Yeah, so right now I’m a college student. I’m a first year at Gettysburg College, triple majoring in psychology, Spanish and business.

I’m also involved in pageantry. And so I’m the current Miss District of Columbia teen volunteer. And so to win that title, I had to get up on stage, do an interview, sing a song in front of people. Pull a question out of a fishbowl and answer it on stage, all things that I never would have even imagined being able to do when I was in fifth grade with selective mutism.

So I was diagnosed in fifth grade and it was really hard for me, especially in the classroom. And I can get to that a little more

Dr. E: later. Yeah. No. I, I think a lot of our listeners are probably thinking, well, wait, is my child ever going to, my child’s never going to be able to do all these things. And this is what you wanted.

This is what Audrey wanted. You wanted to live your life, live your dreams, and you are living your life and living your dreams. And like you said, you were diagnosed in fifth grade. So tell us a little bit about what it was like when you were selectively mute, when you didn’t have your words, when you were feeling anxious and shut down, what did, what was it like in school?

What was it like in your life?

Audrey Whisman: Yeah. So for me, the hardest place to be was school. If a teacher would call on me, I would completely freeze. I couldn’t make eye contact. I couldn’t look at them. And I really struggled a lot with my peers because they saw me as different. And so I definitely faced a little bit of bullying just because they didn’t understand what was going on.

And with some teachers, I remember my band teacher sent my mom an email home saying how defiant I was because I couldn’t play the flute in class. And one day I got in trouble for not playing the flute and he told me get up and do it as a solo now. And so as a kid with selective mutism, I couldn’t move, I was frozen, and even if it seemed like I was being rude or defiant, I was just a little girl paralyzed by

Dr. E: anxiety.

Oh my gosh. So tell me, like, in terms of, you were mentioning about school and peers and feeling like you’re being bullied. I mean, this is not an uncommon presentation. So you were diagnosed in fifth grade prior to the diagnosis and figuring out what it was. What, what did you and your parents go through?

Like, what, where did you seek treatment? Did you think this is just being shy? What did you feel?

Audrey Whisman: We felt really lost for a long time. My parents thought I was just really shy, and we didn’t even know selective fetishism was a thing. And it got to a point where we just kind of realized, this isn’t normal, this isn’t just being shy.

And so my mom started doing some research on her computer, just trying to find any answers so I could get any sort of help, because she saw how much I was struggling every day, and that’s where she was able to find the SMART Center. And from there is where, you know, I was really able to recover and become the person that

Dr. E: I am now.

Yeah.

[00:05:51] TREATMENT STRATEGIES THAT WORKED

Dr. E: And you saw Jennifer Brittingham at the smart center. So, and Jennifer’s awesome. I mean, many, many of our listeners know Jen from our podcast, but also she’s been with the smart center since like forever, but so I know that it was an awesome experience and you really, you know, found your words pretty quickly.

  1. I tell people all the time that it doesn’t take long, and if you find the right, you know, help, and fortunately, you know, for you, I think a big part of this was your parents, right? Like helping you, your teachers, so tell me a little bit about how you felt the treatment helped in terms of your parents and how they changed, made changes.

Audrey Whisman: Yeah, so a lot of what Jennifer did was involving my parents. We would go in person to the SMART Center about once a month with both of my parents. And so they got a lot of family training, learning how to rephrase questions, and help other people interact with me. And I remember my mom would always go to stores together after our sessions at the SMART Center.

And before we went into the store, I’d have to write down three different questions I was going to ask an employee. And then we would come up with spinoff questions. And okay, so what could they say to respond to that? And what would I say in response? Just so I could feel super prepared going into that, And it was terrifying at first.

I could barely ask someone how their day was, or expression as simple as that. But it got to a point where my mom was always there to support me and over time, it just got easier and easier.

Dr. E: That’s amazing. And I think it’s interesting when I talked to teens and that have overcome it, I know that when we start, we talk about the bridge a lot, right?

So did you use the bridge? Do you remember using the bridge in fifth grade? Yeah, I

Audrey Whisman: do.

Dr. E: Well, it’s interesting to hear from individuals that use the bridge as kids. Like, we train parents, we work with kids with the bridge. maNy tell me that it’s very helpful, the bridge. So tell me how the bridge helped you.

Audrey Whisman: think as a kid, just having that visual was really helpful. Being able to really see where I’m at and where I need to go. And something that Jennifer really helped me to is with rewards. And every time I would get to a new point in the bridge, It would feel rewarding just to take that step. And then, you know, that might mean I get to get ice cream after our session and that made it super exciting.

But I think just having that visual as a kid was really helpful.

Dr. E: Yeah, that’s awesome.

[00:08:10] LEAVING SYMPTOMS BEHIND

Dr. E: I Know friendships were important to you and that was a struggle. And tell me how things change with your parents implementing different play dates. What did you do and how did your friendships build?

Audrey Whisman: Yeah, so I think something that made it Really hard for me was in my entire fifth grade class. There were 10 of us. And so I was being mistreated by two. And so that leaves eight people. And so it was really hard for me to get around to different people just cause there weren’t very many options, but I had a few girls that I was really close with, so I would always be paired up with them for projects and we’d have them over to our house sometimes, but it got to a point I ended up switching schools because I was.

Overcoming my symptoms in every other setting, except for school, and we realized that those social situations and just being known as the girl who doesn’t talk really held me back from being able to overcome it in school. And so when I switched schools, I told my mom, I don’t want anyone to know about selective mutism.

I don’t want you to tell my teachers, the school, anyone. And she was terrified because she saw What I’ve been struggling with at the last school when she wanted me to have the support that I needed, but I knew I was ready. And when I walked into the new school, I made 10 new friends just the first day in my homeroom class.

And it was really amazing just seeing the difference in community and that I was really able to leave all my symptoms behind in that moment. And so it worked out

Dr. E: really well. So that’s interesting. I would say that by far the majority don’t have the ability and option to switch schools. Yeah. So for you, you had come, my guess is far enough in treatment that you had the skills, but you were kind of stuck in the sense that, wait, everybody knows me.

I’m the girl that doesn’t talk. And so that break really did speed things along. It sounds like, but not don’t have that ability. So you’re fortunate that that worked for you. Yeah. Yeah, because I’ve had kids over the years that have made switches, but they didn’t have the skills, right? So they’ll come to me and go, I’ve switched schools, but they didn’t have yet the skills.

So what I’m hearing is that you had a lot of skills, you were making huge progress out in the real world which is stores and restaurants. And it sounds like you remember that and you go getting prizes and things like that. That’s awesome. So as far as you’re like, one of the things that we talk a lot about is finding areas of interest and finding friends through those areas of interest.

Did that hold true for you? Was there like hobbies and interests that helped you bond with other kids? Yeah,

Audrey Whisman: definitely. So I always loved Beater, and when I was struggling with selective mutism, I didn’t have the skills to be able to go up on stage, but I still was in the background of our school choir, and I did some different things to sing in front of an audience not at the level I do now.

Now I do a lot of solo performing, which I couldn’t have done before. But I was able to connect with a lot of other people in that choir and shows that I watched and different things I paid attention to. And I also was a really big fan of the Hunger Games at the time. And so I also made some friends just talking about that, connecting with that.

And I found with that, I was able to meet a lot of people online who had similar interests. And that definitely made it easier to talk and socialize.

Dr. E: Would you say finding areas of interest and really focusing on your strengths, Was key to your treatment?

Audrey Whisman: I think so. I think for me the biggest thing was that I always had a lot of motivation to get through it.

I remember the day that my mom told me that there was a name for selective mutism. I was so excited and I was counting down the days from my first session since I knew I might be able to get over this and that was so exciting. But having something to talk to people about just knowing exactly what to say and being excited about it definitely made a big difference and.

you have less of a hindrance going into that

Dr. E: conversation. No, definitely. That sounds, you know, it’s something that you, you said that I’d love to be able to elaborate on. One was you were very motivated and that’s awesome. And that kind of starts you off really strong. So those that are motivated, that want the help are already starting, as I say, at the starting gate and ready to go.

But there are a lot of listeners, either parents. of children and teens and maybe some adults that the parents will say my teen is not motivated. My child is not motivated. They don’t want any help. They slam the door in my face. They don’t want treatment.

[00:12:31] ADVICE TO INDIVIDUALS, PARENTS AND TEACHERS

Dr. E: What would be your advice to those kids and those teens and those individuals struggling?

Audrey Whisman: Yeah, I guess my biggest advice for anyone struggling with selective mutism is just know there’s nothing wrong with you. You are normal, and you don’t have to break yourself down. I think that’s my biggest regret from when I was going through selective mutism. Is that I didn’t separate myself from my self immutism from my anxiety.

And so when I struggled, I would just turn that into self hatred or, you know, self punishment instead of realizing this is my anxiety that I’m struggling with and there’s nothing wrong with me. And so I think my biggest advice is really just know that there’s nothing wrong with you and you’re going to get through this.

You’re going to work through this and everything is going to turn out in the end, but just don’t beat yourself up over it.

Dr. E: And have faith, right? Trust the process. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

Audrey Whisman: I think just listening to podcasts like this and realizing that you can completely overcome it, you know, it’s, I think it gets to a point when you struggle with it for so long that you just consider yourself to be the girl that doesn’t talk. And you don’t realize that there’s any other opportunities for you.

You think you’re always going to be the girl who doesn’t talk. So I think it’s so important to listen to other people’s stories and realize that you have the ability to overcome

Dr. E: this. Did it help to know that others also struggle? That feeling of, I call it social identity, being connected to someone else.

I mean, that’s a big part for us of Communicamp to be able to connect with others that feel just like you do. So from your standpoint, I mean, you’ve been to camp, you’ve seen it. What’s your thought on that, realizing you’re not alone?

Audrey Whisman: I think that’s super helpful, and I remember when I was struggling, I made a comment to my mom one day about, I just wish I could be normal.

I wish I could be like all the other kids. And she said to me, there’s no such thing as normal. Everyone is going through their own thing, even if it’s selective mutism, another mental health disorder, anything else. And for me, that really helped to reduce a lot of anxiety, realizing that I’m not weird.

This doesn’t make me different. This doesn’t make me a bad person or a strange person. This just makes me a human being and that makes me normal. And that’s something that I really love about the Communicamp, especially getting to know other people with the same struggle because you can really relate to them.

Dr. E: Yeah, and I think that one of the things you just said was, you know, what is normal and everybody’s different. Everyone has strengths. Everyone has areas that they may not be strong in. Unfortunately, when you’re not speaking, it’s very obvious, right? Like, that person’s not speaking, so it seems almost like A mountain out of a molehill.

Like I am the person that doesn’t speak, but all the gifts you have and you have so many, and so many of the individuals we work with have so many gifts, but they almost get squashed down because they can’t come out because they don’t have a voice, and so it’s really important to realize that. When you don’t have a voice in that moment or you’re feeling anxious and that’s just that moment and that’s just that situation, but there’s so many strengths about you and everyone is something that’s hard for them, whether it’s, you know, math or English or playing a sport or being able to having some learning challenges, having some speech and language.

Everyone is. Something we’re all human. And so what I hope that happens and what people and our listeners are realizing is that, yeah, you didn’t have a voice at that time, but you really did embellish your strengths. And that was a big area that we focused on in treatment and helping you realize all that you can do, not what you can’t do.

And then realizing you do have a voice, we just have to help you get there, and you did.

Audrey Whisman: Yeah, and I think it’s been amazing too, being involved in the SMART Center and getting to meet a lot of people with Selective Mutism. So many of the kids going through treatment are so creative, so funny, and it’s been amazing to see some people going on to do podcasts, or I know a lot of people with selective mutism who do advocacy Instagram accounts, and just finding different ways to use your voice, even if you can’t do it verbally, and just finding different ways to express your passions.

I just love

Dr. E: getting to see that. Yeah, thanks. That’s That is a beautiful part and we love watching individuals blossom and the hope that we are instilling in others.

In terms of teachers in school, if you had to give a message to a teacher that has a student with selective mutism, what would you tell that teacher?

Audrey Whisman: I think the most important thing is to just be understanding and listen to what they say they need because it changes all the time depending on the day. Some days I was more willing to talk. Some days I completely shut down. I couldn’t talk at all. And so I think it’s so important to approach them kindly and gently because they are very sensitive typically.

And so it’s important to just really address that and make sure that you’re acknowledging their

Dr. E: struggles. And realizing that no child, no teen chooses this, right? Exactly. If you could talk, you would. If you could communicate, you would. And so when someone’s not, sometimes teachers and unfortunately others will see this as they’re doing this on purpose.

And that’s, yeah. And then you read that, right? Like you’re a very sensitive individual as many are with selective mutism or as I call social communication anxiety. And therefore you feel it when somebody isn’t accepting of you. Or doesn’t believe you, or is upset with you. You feel that, right?

Audrey Whisman: Yeah, exactly.

And like you said, it feels like you’re trapped in your body. You want to talk, you want to socialize, you want to answer all the questions, but you physically can’t. And I think that’s a really big misconception for people with

Dr. E: selective mutism. Did you feel that, I know you switched schools, but when you were in your present school, you were still making progress.

Did you feel that teachers were receptive? to the education and really were receptive to you?

Audrey Whisman: Yes, I think so. They were very understanding and they didn’t know about selective mutism specifically, but they knew that I’d had some struggles in the past. And so they were, they really welcomed me with open arms, which is all I could have asked for.

Dr. E: That’s awesome. So for parents that are listening to this, because the majority of our listeners are parents of children and teens, and some adults that are struggling as well are listening to this and teachers and professionals. What would be some advice to the parents of a child that they’re like, Oh, is there hope?

Is, you know, I don’t know. I think my child is so severe and I don’t think she’s ever going to overcome it. He’s never going to get there. What is your advice to them?

Audrey Whisman: I’ve been in that exact same place and I know talking to my parents about it. They didn’t think that I’d be able to overcome it. They never would have imagined that I’d be at a point where I can get on stage.

I can talk to a ton of people about selective mutism and advocate for it. And so I think the hope is really important, just knowing what’s possible for your kid and using that to really motivate them to get through their treatment, even when it’s hard.

Dr. E: So there are some parents that are listening that don’t know how to talk to their child about this.

They really don’t. They, they’re uncomfortable. There’s many that are like, come on, you can do it. You can do it. And the child shuts down, gets frustrated, gets upset. What would be your advice? To the parent in terms of how to talk to their child about this, because I know you had your mother’s amazing in terms of the relationship you have and how I mean, she learned a lot and how she talked to you to help you.

But what would be your advice to parents that may be seeing their child as being. Defiant or choosing this or just don’t know how to talk to their child.

Audrey Whisman: I think the most important thing is to never put pressure on them to talk, because that’ll usually make them recede even more. I know for me, my mom always approached it in a way, even when I would Misbehave and get a time out.

She would tell me go and time out now and come out when you’re ready to talk. So she would really give me that time to process through my thoughts and get to a point where I was able and comfortable to talk. So just letting it be on their terms with being able to talk and not forcing it out of them.

Dr. E: Right. So your time out, you mean when you did something at home that may be behaviorally not about your not talking, obviously. I knew what you meant, but I just wanted to Didn’t think mom was putting you in time out.

I’m knowing your mom. I know that wasn’t the case, but I just wanted to clarify that.

Audrey Whisman: Yeah. My mom did really great with really just approaching me in a gentle way and giving me the time to be able to find my voice and find my words.

Dr. E: So what you’re saying is that understanding nature, that understanding.

I know this is hard and we’re going to figure this out together. Yes, exactly. That’s the message that I want our parents that are listening to understand that, that this is frustrating for you and the goal is that we educate you as much as possible. We offer you the hope. We teach you the skills and there’s so many resources for that through SelectiveMutism.org, which is the Selected Mutism Association. Also SelectiveMutismCenter. org, the SMart Center website. We have a wonderful resource page. With just tons of resources just to start to get to learn and understand this, but the understanding nature of you’re doing this as a team, we’re a team working with you, the child, working with the teachers, your treatment professional, everyone’s together in this.

It’s not like 1 person is going to work harder. It’s everybody together, right?

Audrey Whisman: Yeah, because overcoming it, working through it, is a really hard, long process, and it really does involve everyone. I think for me, that’s why I struggled so much in school, because I had some great teachers who were receptive, but I also had some who weren’t.

And that Is really why school was the hardest place for me to overcome my symptoms, just because I didn’t feel that support from my peers and from all of my teachers. And so as long as all three of those pieces are in place, I think that makes the process so much easier for the child.

[00:22:29] FIGHTING OFF ANXIETY AND NOT LOOKING BACK

Dr. E: So it’s interesting when you went to the smart center, you had gone monthly for about six months and then you went quarterly for about a year.

So after that, when you were going quarterly for a year, would you say like you felt like you had overcome it at that point? I think

Audrey Whisman: so. At that point, I was able to use my voice when I needed to. I still struggled with some things, like a lot of phobias and some social anxiety, but I wasn’t freezing anymore.

And so I think I’d overcome a lot of the selective mutism specific symptoms, but I definitely still struggled a lot with anxiety. It wasn’t just completely overcoming any anxiety.

Dr. E: And I think that’s important as well, because we’re human, right? If anybody says I never have anxiety, I never feel sad. I mean, that’s not real.

They’re a little bit into that, right? Yeah. So do you ever have anxiety? Do you tell me about your anxiety?

Audrey Whisman: I don’t deal with phobias anymore. I don’t have the selective mutism specific symptoms, but I still have that general anxiety that I think is just kind of human nature for a lot of people.

Dr. E: Absolutely. No, I agree. And that’s important to understand is that. If you have anxiety, you can work towards that and get treatment and help because we’re human.

And I mean, I have anxiety, right? I just traveled. I had anxiety getting on the plane. I, I’m a person, right? Yeah. So tell me about your future. Tell me about some neat, exciting things coming up.

Audrey Whisman: Yes, so in this March, I’m super excited because I just found out that I’m actually heading to a national pageant where I’ll be competing against 50, 50 other girls all throughout the country.

So I’m super excited for that, and I’m really working on prepping for that now. And as I said before, I’m a freshman in college and. My plan after that is to go to grad school for clinical psychology, and I want to be a therapist or psychologist, and I really want to help other kids with selective mutism because that’s something that I’m so passionate about.

Dr. E: I got chills. I’m amazed how I know I’ve been doing this a long time and I have patients I worked with many, many years ago, and you’re right, there’s. Pretty big proportion that do feel that connection and want to give back. There are some that are like, Oh, I beat it. I’m good. I’m moving on. But the fact that you have that passion, that past, I think you, I mean, knowing you, seeing you at camp, seeing the way you interact with the kids when you come in and on the panel, you’re amazing.

You’re just such a, an incredible human. You know, that, But I think you’re going to make an incredible therapist and anything we can do to help you in any way, please always reach out because I think you’re amazing. And thank you so much.. This was such a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to talk with you, to see you, to see how you’ve blossomed, to see this, this young woman that you’re just living your life.

And for me, there’s nothing better than to see that. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

Audrey Whisman: Yes, and thank you so much for having me and for everything that the Selective Mutism Center has done for me. I don’t even know where I’d be today or the person I’d be today if it weren’t for all the resources you guys provided me with. So thank you.

Dr. E: Oh, you’re welcome. You will be on a panel again soon, right?

Audrey Whisman: Yes, definitely.