A teenager who spent years battling selective mutism, a disorder which meant she could only talk to members of her own family, has revealed how she managed to overcome her fear of speaking to strangers.
Isabella Turner from West Thurrock, Essex, battled the condition between the ages of two and 16.
The condition, which is recognised by the NHS, sees people struggling to speak in certain scenarios.
Turner, a part-time model, who is now 18, says she used to only talk to her parents and siblings, but the isolation of lockdown shifted her mindset, showing her how important social interactions are.
She says her selective mutism is now a thing of her past and she wants to help others in learning to live with or overcome the disorder.
"Lockdown made me realise that talking to people was a luxury that I'd previously been taking for granted," she explains.
"It showed me anything can happen, and by succumbing to my social anxiety, I was wasting my life."
Turner believes her condition started when she accidentally held a stranger's hand when she was just a toddler.
She says the experience knocked her confidence at a crucial stage in her early life.
"I was on holiday at Butlins and instead of reaching out and holding my parent's hand, I grabbed a stranger's," she explains.
"When I realised, I freaked out, and the disorder came about shortly after that."
Growing up Turner, who's one of nine children, recalls only ever speaking to her mum and dad and occasionally her siblings.
Originally, people labelled her shy, but in primary school, after refusing to speak with her teachers or classmates, she was officially diagnosed.
"I began constantly freezing up when I went to say something, and despite teachers' best efforts to get me talking when I started school, I was still more or less mute," she explains.
"In secondary school I came out of my shell a bit more. But I was very quiet so I didn't make any friends."
Turner says that when she was in year 10, just before the COVID pandemic, the disorder really started to affect her studies. So when news broke that the country was going into lockdown, it came as a relief to her.
However, she actually found that the reality of the lockdown at the start of the pandemic, left her feeling isolated.
As the youngest child in her family by a decade and with most of her brothers and sisters having moved out, apart from contact with her parents, Turner says she spoke to no one.
With the pressures of school and socialising taken away for a period she was left alone with her thoughts, and, after a while, to her surprise, she started missing contact with people on the outside world.
"The difference between choosing not to socialise with people because of anxiety and being told you can't by a higher authority was what really resonated with me," she explains.
"Lockdown allowed me time to think, reflect on my life and get a grip of my social anxiety. It was a chance to reset."
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When she changed schools in year 11, for a fresh start, Turner says she tried to hang onto those feelings and this finally helped her overcome her disorder.
"Since then, I've never looked back," she adds.
What is selective mutism?
The NHS says selective mutism is an anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, such as with classmates at school or to relatives they do not see very often.
While it usually starts during childhood, if left untreated the disorder can persist into adulthood.
A child or adult with selective mutism does not refuse or choose not to speak at certain times - they're literally unable to speak.
The expectation to talk to certain people triggers a freeze response with feelings of anxiety and panic, and talking is impossible.
Selective mutism affects about 1 in 140 young children. It's more common in girls and children who have recently migrated from their country of birth, according to the NHS.
Though selective mutism can start at any age, it typically starts in early childhood, between the age of two and four.
The main sign is an obvious contrast in the child's ability to engage with different people, characterised by a sudden stillness and frozen facial expression when they're expected to talk to someone who's outside their comfort zone.
They may avoid eye contact and appear:
- nervous, uneasy or socially awkward
- rude, disinterested or sulky and clingy
- being shy and withdrawn
- stiff, tense or poorly co-ordinated
- stubborn or aggressive, having temper tantrums when they get home from school, or getting angry when questioned by parents.
Experts regard selective mutism as a fear or phobia of talking to certain people. The cause is not always clear, but it's known to be associated with anxiety.
If left untreated, selective mutism can lead to isolation, low self-esteem and social anxiety disorder. It can continue into adolescence and adulthood if not managed.
With appropriate handling and treatment, the NHS says most children are able to overcome selective mutism.
But the older they are when the condition is diagnosed, the longer it will take.
There are many factors which might impact the effectiveness of treatment including how long the person has had selective mutism and whether or not they have additional communication or learning difficulties or anxieties.
Treatment focuses on reducing the anxiety associated with speaking, including trying to remove the pressure on the person to speak.
Further help and support
The Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMiRA) is another good resource for people affected by selective mutism.
There's also a SMiRA Facebook page.
Additional reporting SWNS.