Selective Muteness, a condition where you can’t speak up

We know what it’s like to sit at a party or workplace, where trouble is brewing and no one is comfortable saying something to change it. People are being too loud, the boss is insulting your workmate, the drunk on the train is complaining about Those People again.

When no one speaks up, we all freeze in something known as the Bystander Effect. People who didn’t have anxiety a minute ago suddenly feel they can’t getting involved, even though they know they can shut up the train racist or that the people nearby will tone down the noise.

People with selective muteness live like this. The name makes it sound like a choice but it’s not. It’s an anxiety disorder, that is, a feeling of doom that follows you everywhere and dictates how you act. It stops you from speaking, especially when you need to speak. It happens a lot to people on the Spectrum — the Selective Mutism Center calls it a childhood anxiety disorder, but I know plenty of adults with Asperger’s whose instincts shut them up in important times. Some can’t talk around others at all.

It reminds me of the common story where a child never talks until they’re about three years old, then one day they unleash a full sentence at their parents. People say the same thing about Einstein, but what they have him saying and at what age are so various that I don’t believe any of them. We have enough stories about regular people on the Spectrum to make up for all those Abraham Lincoln Gandhi quotes that the Internet credits to Einstein.

But once people know you’re not 100% mute, it can be difficult for them to understand sometimes-muteness unless it’s explained to them.

If you experience selective muteness at work, you’ll probably have trouble working.

Most work depends on communication. We have to tell and be told what’s happening today, this week and in the few coming months, and we have to show that we’ve understood all the instructions that workmates give each other. Without this common chat, there’s no way to know what work you should do, can do or what others are doing. You can’t plan.

It’s that important. No communication, no work. But if workmates communicate to each other well, and feel comfortable speaking up, business tends to go well and the workers tend to be happy. This isn’t common knowledge in any world — there are mean bosses and workers who aren’t great listeners, and their workplaces tend to be unhappy. Every workplace has a different idea of what’s normal and how happy their workers can expect to be. And if you have a way of communicating with workmates, you can contribute to that idea of what normal is.

Can we work while we have selective muteness?

Of course we can.

Because we still need to communicate, we need to find ways around the anxiety. First, the obvious: Selective muteness is not just being a quiet person.

You’re allowed to be introverted. It will help you in most workplaces. Introverts tend to be better listeners. They get to know their workmates better than an extrovert who talks a lot, which makes them better leaders. This is especially true for an introvert with a cool head. In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, Tony Attwood says that people on the Spectrum are remarkably good at keeping calm when things go horribly, traumatically wrong. Way better than neurotypicals. An introverted adult with Asperger’s who can keep themselves from melting down might be the perfect worker, and eventually the perfect boss.

So let’s pay attention to when we’re more comfortable talking less (introversion), and when we want to say something but our brains won’t let us (selective muteness).

Next, we figure out ways we can communicate.

What kind of communication can you successfully give to a workmate? Are you capable of writing on a post-it, or sending them an email? If they ask why you don’t just speak to them, is there any other medium where you’re comfortable telling them you have an anxiety disorder? It might take some time, and this might be exhausting. If your workplace deserves the good effort you give them, they will try to help you and will not make fun of you. Work is how we keep society going, so it makes sense that everyone at a workplace should be nice and helpful to each other. Anyone who’s not helpful when you have a problem is missing the point of work.

When you’ve found a way you can comfortably communicate, see if your workplace can allow you to keep using that medium. A time might come when you’re ready to move past your selective muteness, and a cognitive behavioural therapist or other professional can help you. It took me years of therapy and the support of many friends to get comfortable speaking. You’re making an effort and that’s all anyone can do. If you’re trying, you’re doing fine.

And if we just can’t communicate?

This happens. It’s debilitating and frustrating, and we can survive it.

There is a possibility that if you’re not communicative, you won’t be able to do the work your job needs. We all deal with it our own way, so let’s consider something positive:

Jobs you can do without too much communication.

Most low communication jobs involve technology. Working with machines takes plenty of logic and order, which is a nice antidote to anxiety if you can handle it. We can even put things together in a factory for okay money. Programming involves learning the language that we put into machines, but you’re talking to a machine, not a person, and they only understand purely logical communication. If you can handle the occasional instruction that a machine doesn’t understand because someone put in a typo (and occasionally that someone is us, because everyone makes mistakes) this can be soothing too.

Jobs where you can be alone are good. I know security guards on the Spectrum, though if anxiety is your issue I don’t recommend a job where you scare off danger. Though if you want to try it, the training looks fun — and you’ll learn a bit about crowds.

Hell, here are some jobs that pay well and don’t need much communication according to Business Insider:

Train operator


Machine maintenance

Data entry and processing, including mail

Sysadmin and software development

I will always recommend technology to people who need to work alone. It’s a sweet spot where there’s a lot of work to do and money to make.