Speaking up for selective mutism


“Just because you can’t speak doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice,” Jessica Pormigiano, a 19-year-old with selective mutism wrote. She communicates using a white board, because her condition prevents her from speaking in social settings.

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder in which a person is unable to speak in situations such as at school, in public or at work. Most cases are identified at a young age, usually between 3 and 8 years old, according to the Selective Mutism, Anxiety, and Related Disorders Treatment Center.

This summer, Jessica started hand-crocheting potholders. Her mother, Erica Pormigiano, suggested that she sell them at local events such as local nonprofit Rescuing Families’ community marketplaces.

Erica and Joe Pormigiano, Jessica’s father, help out at events and with projects for Rescuing Families — a nonprofit organization based in Franklin Square — and thought it would be a good way for Jessica to get involved in the community. Gina Centauro, founder of Rescuing Families, came up with the name “Silent Stitches” for Jessica’s potholders.

If people have questions about the products she’s selling, either of Jessica’s parents will sit with her, and act as her verbal companion.

“They usually find them very good — they like the colors,” Joe said of customers who browse the selection of potholders at Jessica’s table.

In addition to having one of her parents with her, Jessica has flyers explaining her anxiety disorder to explain why she doesn’t speak to customers. Her mother says that people have been very kind and understanding when they approach her table.

“The community seems understanding about my issue,” Jessica wrote, “and a lot of people like the quality of the project.”

At the marketplaces that she has taken part in, a majority of people aren’t aware of what selective mutism is. Erica said that it helps to bring awareness to the issue during these events or boutique sales.

“I would say 90 percent of people out there have no idea about this issue,” Erica said.

Jessica, a member of the H. Frank Carey High School Class of 2022, was diagnosed with selective mutism when she was just 2. Her parents had noticed that she wouldn’t speak in certain situations, even though she was chatty at home.

They tried speech therapy when she was 3, but it didn’t work. Then they tried a social skills group in Franklin Square that had an instructor who was familiar with selective mutism. This gave Jessica the chance to interact with other kids her age.

When she started elementary school, she joined Girl Scouts, and was comfortable talking with her friends throughout her time at Polk Street School.

In junior high, her condition became more noticeable. “This is something sometimes you outgrow — sometimes you don’t,” her mother said. “It’s just one of those things. And there are probably a lot of adults out there that do have this.”

Since she graduated from Carey, being able to sell her potholders at community marketplaces has allowed Jessica to connect with people in a different way.

“The fact I’m able to speak to people feels very rewarding, since most of my life I was seen as the ‘weird quiet kid,’” she wrote.

Erica encouraged anyone who has selective mutism, or any other social anxiety, to find an activity in the community to take part in.

“Don’t be afraid to get involved with community volunteer groups,” Erica said. “Don’t be afraid of getting out there. Just take small steps.”