Rachel Ling Gordon: “Selective Mutism is more than just shyness”

Most children develop Selective Mutism between the ages of 2 and 4 but they don’t often receive help until they are 6 to 8 years old. Research consistently shows that children make more progress the earlier they receive treatment. It can never hurt a child to learn strategies to feel less anxious and practice communicating […]

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Most children develop Selective Mutism between the ages of 2 and 4 but they don’t often receive help until they are 6 to 8 years old. Research consistently shows that children make more progress the earlier they receive treatment. It can never hurt a child to learn strategies to feel less anxious and practice communicating with others, even if they are three years of age.

As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Ling Gordon.

Rachel is an 8-Year-Old Actor & Singer who played the role of “Cindy Lou Who” in the 10th Anniversary Broadway National Tour of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”. Rachel has performed piano solo at Carnegie Hall and walked the runway at New York Fashion Week. She has also been featured in the news and in numerous TV and print commercials.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

Hi! I’m Rachel Ling Gordon. I was born and raised in Westchester, New York in a mixed-ethnicity home. My mother is from Singapore and my father is an American. I was diagnosed with Selective Mutism at 2.5 years old. My parents took me to many different doctors because I never spoke a word in pre-school. I could only talk at home but not anywhere else. I couldn’t even look at people in their eyes and would freeze when they said “Hi” to me. At first, everyone thought I was just shy, but later they realized that I was paralyzed with fear. Through years (more than half of my life!) of hard work, determination and support from my family, teachers, doctors, therapists and friends, I was finally able to find my voice!

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you were diagnosed with Selective Mutism? What did you do to not let that “stop you”?

It was in the Fall of 2014 when my pre-school director & teachers had a conference with my parents and asked if I spoke at home. My parents were very shocked that I never spoke a word to anyone at school and was often playing only by myself. I was silently facing an extreme form of anxiety that made it impossible for me to speak with others and make friends. People called me “shy”, but the truth was I had Selective Mutism — a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. I remember vividly how I was a happy child at home, but felt so scared and overwhelmed outside of my house that I would shut down and not respond to anyone.

After the doctors gave me a formal diagnosis, my parents were finally able to get me the treatment and help I needed. I received services (before turning 3) from Preschool Special Education (CPSE) and then Individualized Education Program (IEP) through Kindergarten, in addition to counseling services at home. My parents also signed me up for all kinds of social events as well as hosting fun play dates to expose me to new people and environments. It was very difficult and awkward at first, as I remained mute all the time. A few of my little friends even came up to my face and questioned why I didn’t talk; I was in tears. Over time (2–3 years), such consistent exposure helped me open up and develop new friendships. I slowly learned how to cope with my anxiety and unlearned my mute behavior.

Knowing how much I love performing at home, my parents encouraged me to take another leap of faith: onto the stage. I started with runway modeling because it allowed me the opportunity to perform without having to say a word. Still, it wasn’t easy at first. When I did my first runway, I walked down halfway through, turned around and broke down in tears. But I told myself I can do this and I will not give up. I kept pushing myself as I feel the love and support from everyone around me wanting me to succeed. Eventually my efforts paid off; I came in first at a New York Modeling Competition and represented our state to take part in an International Modeling Competition in Beijing, China. I was the only U.S. contestant to win a spot to walk the runway at the coveted New York Fashion Week! From there, I gained lots of confidence and felt so much more positive about myself!

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite having Selective Mutism?

I have always had a passion and love for performing — singing, acting, piano and modeling, but found it difficult to express my special talents in front of others as a result of my struggles with Selective Mutism.

Fortunately, after winning my first runway modeling competition and walking at New York Fashion Week at 5 years old, I realized I could possibly achieve anything with my hard work, passion and never-give-up attitude. I continued doing the things I love. Though scary at many times, I constantly pushed myself beyond my comfort zone and participated in different classes, competitions and even auditions. I was very lucky to have the support of my family, friends and dedicated teachers who guided me so patiently along the way.

Then one day last summer when I turned 7 — a miracle happened: I received news that I was selected from a nationwide casting call (after four auditions and callbacks) to play the lead role of “Cindy Lou Who” in the Broadway National Tour of “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”! Never in a million years could I have imagined this happening to me!

For me, that was a huge turning point of my life. I met so many new, wonderful friends in the cast and company of the “Grinch” tour who brought out the best in me.Traveling around the country to six different cities, performing in front of thousands of people and meeting fans empowered me. My excitement for performing made me forget about my anxiety and gave me strength. I felt so happy that I was finally able to share my voice on stage, loudly and proudly for all to hear.

I have since performed piano at Carnegie Hall after winning a First Place Award at an International Music Competition. I have also been featured in the news and have appeared in several TV and print commercials. Today, I am even more motivated to work towards achieving my dreams!

What advice would you give to other people who have Selective Mutism?

I was very fortunate to be diagnosed at a young age and got all the help I needed. I would like to share that Selective Mutism is nothing to be ashamed of. You are never alone, there are many people who feel the same as us. I know how hard it is, but please try to take a little step a day to speak up. It can be anyone you feel comfortable with. We can work hard to unlearn our mute behaviors and not reinforce them. If we keep trying and not give up, one day we will be able to speak more freely and the next day we will do even better! For people who know anyone with Selective Mutism, please don’t encourage avoidance. Kindly offer encouragement and do this in tiny steps. Give us time (5 seconds or more) to warm up and respond. Please never pressure us to speak as it will create more anxiety!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I have a village of people I am forever grateful to! The phenomenal doctors who diagnosed me early, my loving parents who got help for me, my sweet little brother who chatted with me, the team of dedicated healthcare professionals (therapists, psychologists, counselors, special educators) who worked so patiently with me, my remarkable schools & teachers who kindly accommodated me, my wonderful friends and family who encouraged me, my amazing manager, agency & coaches who believed in me and the fabulous casting directors who gave me miraculous opportunities…. The list goes on. I am incredibly blessed to have such a strong, supportive network. Without them, I won’t be who I am today!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have learned to use my newly found voice and unique talents to share my own story to inspire others to do the same. I was honored to be a “Blossom Kid” in The Blossom Company’s #IAMBLOSSOM Campaign, a special children’s campaign on YouTube to encourage children all around the world to celebrate and share qualities that make them “blossom”. I have also openly shared my personal struggles and journey in several news media outlets in hope to help youths and families dealing with Selective Mutism. Now that I am a little older, I would love to raise awareness about Selective Mutism and volunteer at different organizations (such as Child Mind Institute, Selective Mutism Association etc.) to help people find their voices!

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with Selective Mutism” and why.

  1. Selective Mutism is more than just shyness. It is a severe anxiety disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate in certain situations while being able to communicate freely in other settings (like home).
  2. Selective Mutism is actually not “Selective”. It has a misleading name. It is not a choice and it does not mean the person is not choosing to speak. Therefore, some prefer to use the term “Situational Mutism”.
  3. Kids with Selective Mutism do not grow out of it over time. Without effective treatment or help, Selective Mutism can go into teenage years and adulthood, and can possibly lead to other mental illnesses.
  4. Some early signs of Selective Mutism include: Playing alone, Avoiding eye contact, Appearing frozen or speechless, Not communicating or communications only through whispering & gestures.
  5. Most children develop Selective Mutism between the ages of 2 and 4 but they don’t often receive help until they are 6 to 8 years old. Research consistently shows that children make more progress the earlier they receive treatment. It can never hurt a child to learn strategies to feel less anxious and practice communicating with others, even if they are three years of age!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

I love Dr. Seuss and his books. My favorite quote of his: “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?”. It inspires me to believe in my unique self and shine by striving to become my better self!

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this:

I have so many role models I love and admire! If I have to pick one, I would choose Emma Stone because I hope to grow up to be a successful actress and advocate like her! When my mom told me about her anxiety story, I felt so inspired as I feel I can relate to her journey when she was younger. Just like Emma, performing has kept me away from my anxiety and made me feel I have some kind of superpower when I put my feelings to good use. It would be so cool to meet Emma… I can learn so much more from her!

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