The word muteness is used as an umbrella term to describe a number of separate conditions. In this monster-sized guide (accompanied by a resource masterlist), each cause, reason and result will be explored through extensive explanations, characterisation ideas and even faceclaim suggestions. Related disorders and conditions will also be addressed, such as speech disorders and deafness. Reading this guide should allow you to play a person afflicted by any type of muteness effectively.
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Muteness involves the inability to produce sounds vocally. It comes in many different forms and varies from person to person, making it an umbrella term. Each type and cause of muteness produces a different set of symptoms and results.
Playing a mute character varies with each type of muteness; however, feelings of humiliation, shame, and frustration will often be prevalent. Similar to playing a character with any other disorder, it is always important to research, read and understand before attempting to play the character. This will contribute to a realistic personality and a realistic portrayal of the disorder.
Here is a list of terms relevant to muteness that you may encounter while exploring this guide. Each is accompanied by its official definition; therefore, none were written by me. Refer back here at any time to ensure you have a clear understanding!
Anxiety - An abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.
Conscious - Aware of one’s own existence, sensations, thoughts, surroundings, etc.
Deafness - A degree of hearing impairment such that a person is unable to understand speech even in the presence of amplification.
Hearing loss - Exists when there is diminished sensitivity to the sounds normally heard.
Humiliation - The state of being humiliated or disgraced; shame.
Isolation - The act of being or feeling set or kept apart from others.
Misconception - A mistaken thought, idea, or notion; a misunderstanding.
Mute (adjective) - Refraining from producing speech or vocal sound. (Note: This term can be considered offensive.)
Mute (noun) - One who is incapable of speech. (Note: This term can be considered offensive.)
Symptom - A sign or an indication of disorder or disease, especially when experienced by an individual as a change from normal function, sensation, or appearance.
Treatment - Administration or application of remedies to a patient or for a disease or injury; medicinal or surgical management; therapy.
Mutism (or Selective Mutism)
Sufferers of selective mutism are unable or unwilling to speak in certain places or situations, or to certain people. They are physically capable of speaking outside of these instances, but incapable of speaking when confronted with something that is triggering.
Selective mutism is mainly recognised in young children, especially in situations where the pressure of speaking can be overwhelming. Examples may include the first day of school or a public speaking event. Note, however, that selective mutism can occur within any age group.
Selective mutism is majorly related to two other conditions:
The effects of the above two conditions may cause a person to be selectively mute; however, they are not exclusive causes of mutism. Note, however, that 90% of people with selective mutism also suffer from social anxiety disorder.
Trauma and abuse also come into the equation, as trust issues and psychological damage can cause selective mutism.
Myths and Misconceptions:
Treatment for selective mutism usually involves procedures that gradually introduce the uncomfortable situation or triggering person to the sufferer. These may include situations in which a person with whom the sufferer is comfortable will gradually give way to a person with whom the sufferer is uncomfortable, until the sufferer is comfortable speaking in both cases.
Another common form of treatment is the creation of edited videos that show the sufferer answering questions asked by a person to whom they are uncomfortable speaking. The material for these videos is acquired by asking the sufferer to answer questions asked by a person to whom they are comfortable speaking on tape, and then asking a person to whom the sufferer is uncomfortable speaking to repeat the questions (this is also recorded). The sections involving the person to whom the sufferer is comfortable speaking are deleted, and the edited material is shown to the sufferer as a hypothetical situation.
Playing a Character With Selective Mutism:
In order to play a selectively mute character, one must first understand the importance of staying true to the disorder. Because selective mutism is hypothesised to be a somewhat conscious decision, it may be easy, as a roleplayer, to step around the issue of having to play the character as fully mute in particular situations and therefore avoid the more challenging parts of writing the disorder by allowing the character to speak at any time. This is unrealistic and unhelpful, as well as disrespectful to anyone with this particular disorder. A person will usually only talk in uncomfortable situations if they are gradually exposed to the correct treatment (see the Treatment section), and if this treatment is not readily available, it is likely the condition will become worse as the person ages.
The most predominant feeling surrounding a selectively mute character is usually frustration. The character will be frustrated because they will not necessarily be able to communicate properly with the people around them, and are therefore misunderstood or not taken seriously. It is also likely that the people surrounding the character will be misguided by common misconceptions (see the Myths and Misconceptions section). Another feeling a selectively mute character will often feel is humiliation. The pressure from peers and family can build up and make a selectively mute character feel embarrassed and ashamed of his/her inability to answer questions or communicate ”normally” with others. Finally, anxiety plays a large part in the emotions of a selectively mute person. The same pressure that contributes to the character’s humiliation may also cause nervous breakdowns or panic attacks.
A selectively mute character may start out either completely or partially mute. If the character is a child, it is more likely that he/she will only be mute in certain situations, especially those in which he/she is shy. These could include the first day of school or meeting a new friend. However, if your character is not being treated, it is very likely that the condition will increasingly worsen as he/she age,s so that there may be times when your character is completely mute. It is also true that treatment is much harder to administer effectively when the patient is not a child. Remember that as your character ages, his/her chances of communicating completely “normally” will diminish.
Making friends will always be hard for your character and teasing and bullying are two likely events that may cause your character to become isolated from their peers. However, friendship is equally as important to your character as any other, and stable relationships will help your character move out from under his/her shell, as selective mutism is heavily based on trust.
Muteness as a Result of Hearing Impairment
Muteness as a result of hearing impairment (unofficially and, in some cases, derogatorily, referred to as ‘deaf-mutism’) is the inability or unwillingness to speak due to being unable to hear. It does not stem from a physical disorder of the vocal area, nor does it arise from a mental illness or condition. Instead, being mute because of hearing impairment means that one disorder (the inability to hear anything) causes the onset of a second disorder (being mute).
Before reading this section, it is important to note the difference between deafness and hearing loss (see the Dictionary section).
In this case, the inability to hear causes muteness. There are two main reasons for this connection:
There are many causes of deafness or hearing impairment. Summarily, these include:
Please note, however, that the above information on deafness is brief. If you are playing a character that is both deaf and mute, it is advisable to conduct extensive research into deafness. See the Further Reading section for suggested resources.
Myths and Misconceptions:
For muteness as a result of hearing impairment, the treatment section is not necessarily applicable. The ability to communicate as “normally” as possible often comes from many years of speech training and language exercises (many deaf people learn from vibration exercises and lip-reading). Sign language is also a common method of communication within the deaf community. Remember, however, that the cause of the muteness, in this case, is an inability to hear. Treatment for hearing impairment is often prioritised.
Treatment for hearing impairment and absolute deafness varies greatly depending on the cause. The most common treatment for any form of hearing impairment is a hearing aid. Depending on the severity of the hearing impairment, a hearing aid is able to amplify external sounds (such as speech).
For absolute deafness, sign language enables the individual to communicate. Cochlear implants are expensive devices that require complex programming and are connected to the inside of the ear. They stimulate the cochlear nerve so that hearing is possible; however, use of the implant requires intensive training. There are many other assistive devices that enable deaf individuals to communicate effectively with others.
Playing a Character Who is Both Deaf and Mute:
When playing a character who is mute as a result of a hearing impairment, it is important to remember that, unless a second condition exists that affects cognitive capabilities, your character is equally as capable in terms of thinking, understanding, learning, and feeling, as any other character.
This will generally cause complications, as the inability to express his/her emotions and thoughts may cause your character to feel intense frustration and anger at the world around him/her. While sign language is a solution, it will still be hard for your character to communicate within school, work, and - sometimes - community, environments. Imagine, for example, that you want to say something simple to a friend. A joke, perhaps, or a greeting. Now imagine that you can’t say what you wanted to. You have to sit on your words, and as the day passes the pile of things you want to tell people builds up slowly, until it all becomes too stressful.
As your character ages, he/she will generally become very aware of his/her inability to hear or speak. Avoid situations in which your character tries to speak but is unable to, as this results in an unrealistic portrayal of the condition.
Your character may also be very isolated from the rest of society, and, if he/she is a child or teenager, it is likely that he/she will attend a school that specifically meets his/her needs. If playing a character that is mute as a result of hearing impairment, you must be very aware of the environments you place your character in, as being unrealistic is a possibility in this case.
Muteness and Speech Disorders
A speech disorder is a communication disorder that affects a person’s ability to speak “normally”. When a speech disorder is debilitating enough to prevent a person from speaking completely, this individual is considered mute. Muteness is also classified as a speech disorder.
There are four main terms used for articulation speech disorders: omissions (certain sounds are deleted - for example, chee instead of cheese), substitutions (one sound is replaced with another - for example, theese instead of cheese), distortions (sounds are changed slightly - for example, cheelse instead of cheese), and additions (an extra sound is added - for example, cheesea instead of cheese).
This section will focus on all speech disorders - not only muteness - and how they can affect a person’s thoughts and actions.
Types and Causes:
There are many different speech disorders. They range from relatively minor (occasional stuttering, for example) to completely life-altering (muteness, for example). Below are a few speech disorders that may affect a person’s emotions and/or actions, and their respective causes.
The list above is brief. If you would like to find out more about speech disorders, and the types and causes, refer to the Further Reading section.
Myths and Misconceptions:
Speech therapy, or speech language-pathology, is a common form of treatment that involves a speech therapist working together with the affected individual to effectively “train” him/her into talking “normally”. Some cases, however, are more severe and require a specialised doctor to treat the patient.
Children with severe speech disorders are often placed in special education. This involves focused education that is especially developed to suit the individual’s needs and can have a significant effect on the patient.
There are no solutions that offer a ‘quick-fix’ form of treatment; however, if the speech disorder is recognised when the individual is at a relatively young age, severe complications can often be avoided.
Playing a Character With a Speech Disorder:
The first thing to understand about a speech disorder is that it will affect the individual at all times. There may be occasions or situations when a person is not affected, but, apart from these exceptions, the disorder will generally be constant. It is also important to note that in times of stress, or in situations in which the individual is expected to speak without the speech disorder affecting them, they will be affected more than they usually are. The irony of this type of situation can lead to humiliation, distress, and a tendency to avoid speaking. This can sometimes lead to a type of selective mutism in which a person makes a conscious decision to refrain from speaking.
Because speech disorders vary in severity, the emotional affect the disorder will have on your character will also vary. For example, if your character has a lisp, it is unlikely that he/she will be severely affected. However, if your character has a severe stutter, he/she could be subjected to teasing or bullying from friends and peers. This will often result in humiliation and unhappiness. Remember that your character’s personality may contradict with his/her disorder - for example, your character may be naturally loud and opinionated, but his/her speech disorder will prevent him/her from expressing him/herself properly. This can cause a number of complications, including other disorders like depression and anxiety.
If your character has a severe speech disorder, it is likely that he/she will be relatively isolated from peers and colleagues. Your character may have a family connection that enables them to express how they feel, a close group of friends that they can talk to without feeling embarrassed, a counsellor, or - sometimes - no-one at all. Because of potential bullying and teasing, your character may have a very low self-esteem, sometimes bordering on anxiety.
Counseling, as well as talking to people with whom the individual may have a close connection, is extremely important for confidence-building. Establishing close relationships for your character is also important and prevents your character from becoming isolated from his/her peers.
Other Types of Muteness
A person with akinetic mutism is both unable to move and unable to speak. Akinetic mutism is caused by a frontal lobe injury, which is in turn caused by a variety of diseases and disorders. These include olfactory groove meningiomas, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, encephalitis lethargica, and stroke. You can find out more about this disorder in the Further Reading section.
Specific Language Impairment:
SLI is generally the classification for a speech disorder (including muteness) that is not derived from any common cause - for example, slow development, physical abnormalities, autism, brain damage, or hearing loss. There are many theories surrounding the disorder. 40% of cases are “solved” by the time the patient has reached five years of age.
The Broca’s Area is the area of the brain related to speech production. A physical injury to this area can cause the affected to become mute, or to have issues with speech production. The severity of the injury is often directly related to the amount of damage caused; however, there have been cases in which the patient can speak normally after having large parts of the Broca’s Area removed, or after damaging the area.
Reminders and Notes
If you admin a roleplay, why not think about adding a mute character? If you’re making an OC, why not make him/her mute? Mute characters are relatively uncommon and can add a new dynamic to a roleplay. Adding a mute character not only enables the player to explore new boundaries but also challenges other players to interact in new ways.
Muteness, like any other type of disorder, does not define a person. It may affect your character - severely - but it does not govern an individual’s original thoughts and feelings. Having a mute character does not enable you to write an underdeveloped personality - the character must have a strong background and personality before the addition of muteness is introduced.
While it is important to be realistic and have an extensive knowledge of the information applicable to your character, it is also important to use your imagination and write as you would in any other situation. Take, for example, this quote from author Erin Lange:
When writing about a tricky topic, I say, “Imagine first. Research later.” There is a lot of pressure, when covering tough issues, to be accurate, and the temptation is to focus more on the facts than the fiction. But try to remember the number one goal is always to tell a good story and stopping every few pages to check your facts can interrupt the creative flow.
In the case of [my book], I was hyper-aware of being accurate about obesity and the medical conditions involved. When writing scenes that required those medical facts, I would highlight the text to remind myself to research later. Then, after doing my research, I would go back and make adjustments to those scenes. It required a lot of extra work on the back end, but it allowed me to stay focused on the story in the early drafts.
When writing, attempt to step into the shoes of your character and write purely from the point of view of the individual, rather than tainting your writing with your personal viewpoint.
Below is a collection of resources that will aid you in your research.
Muteness as a Result of Hearing Impairment:
This guide was originally and completely written (with the exception of the Dictionary section and any blockquoted areas) by the author behind Keir Reviews. Both extensive research and personal experience were used to create this guide; however, if a problem arises, please do not hesitate to contact me. If you feel that any of the information found within this guide is incorrect, I will happily acknowledge your suggestions for improvement.
Please note that all faceclaim suggestions reflect the personal opinions of the author of this guide, and are not intended to be offend anyone.
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