REPORTER: Bryan Seymour
BROADCAST DATE: November 22, 2006
El's battle with selective mutism
For most people, El has to write her words.
El is a bright, young Australian girl desperate to find employment. But she has a rare condition which leaves her unable to speak to most people.
El Cesana may be mute, but she has plenty to say.
She even has a BA in Communications and a Fine Arts diploma, as well as being a good typist with graphic design skills.
But she suffers a rare condition that is often not diagnosed, or misdiagnosed as social phobia.
It means El can talk normally to some of her family and her partner David, but cannot utter a sound to anyone else. Instead, she writes the words she wants to say.
It is called selective mutism, a rare childhood anxiety disorder. An incident in kindergarten when El was five years old traumatised her and left her literally speechless.
Yet despite her extreme fear of talking to strangers, El has modelled and even appeared as an extra in a feature film about to be released.
David has been with El for two and a half years. They were introduced by a friend and share a love of writing and art. They also share the frustration of El's unusual condition.
"Maybe people on the bus would think it's a little bit weird watching us," David said.
"They can just hear one side of a conversation, they think maybe I'm on the phone, but there's El scribbling."
El is eligible for a disability pension, but refuses to take it. She says the money should go to "people who really need it".
But in an age of phones and customer contact, finding work is hard for someone who is mute.
"I hope that there's enough good out there that someone's going to just take the logical step and see past it like I have," David said. "I don't know."
El has worked casually at her local Target store for the past three years.
Store manager Rosina Harria has no qualms about her silent staffer.
"With the communication, she communicates by writing and has done for the three years and there's been no problems," Rosina said.
El says she wants to do anything that involves writing. Rosina says there are plenty of roles she could fill.
El is surprisingly forward. At the recent ARIA music awards, she even bailed up Guy Sebastian on the red carpet. She gave him a note saying "I can't talk" and asked him for a photo.
"He was so lovely, he put his arm around me for the photo and was joking," El wrote for Today Tonight.
El found it scary to have a television camera in front of her, but said she wanted people to understand her condition.
Selective mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder. Professor Ron Rapee told us it rarely carried through to adulthood.
"Selective mutism is a relatively rare condition, although some people are saying that it's more common than we realise," Professor Rapee said.
"And so, as yet, we still don't know a huge amount about it."
Hope for a cure may rest with doctors in the US, where several people have been successfully treated. El stopped working with her speech therapist here several years ago.
"It's a really serious anxiety problem, but those kind of things are treatable and she's certainly got the strength to do it if she put her mind to it and spent the hours working on it," David said.
El hopes that in five years she may have beaten the condition, but says she does not know whether it is possible. In the meantime, she's determined to find a job.
If you can offer El a job, Today Tonight would love to hear about it. Send us your contact details and the kind of work you can offer, and we will pass it on to El: click here to contact Today Tonight.
For more information on selective mutism, visit www.selectivemutism.org or the Childhood Network website: www.childhoodnetwork.org
To contact the Childhood Anxiety Clinic at Macquarie University call: (02) 9850 8711 or visit their website: www.psy.mq.edu.au/muaru
View a trailer for "Offing David", the feature film El appears in, at: