Shy Beyond Words

To see Emily Chapline at home with her family, you'd think she'd be a social butterfly.

"She always had separation anxiety … but she always functioned and she always talked," her mother, Jana Chapline, tells The Early Show co-anchor Rene Syler.

At school, Emily, a fourth-grader, loves learning and playing with her classmates, but there's one thing that sets her apart from the other kids — Emily doesn't speak at school.

"It's amazing to me that she is able to — to function as well as she is and thrive like she does, and not be able to speak," says Emily's father, Kent Chapline.

And it's not just at school. Emily doesn't speak to anyone other than her family and a few close friends because she suffers from a social anxiety disorder called "selective mutism."

To keep Emily in a regular class, her parents have worked with her school to devise a system to help their daughter cope.

She does taped book reports. She uses a special notebook her mom made with questions for her teacher. And the only other way Emily communicates in class is through her best friend, Asha, who she's known since kindergarten.

"If Emily needs to let me know something, then she just quietly moves over there and whispers it in her ear," says Emily's teacher, Hope Hedrick "And then the other student will come let me know that Emily needs."

Emily was just weeks into pre-school, only 4-years-old, when she stopped talking.

"She would just lay on the floor and scream and cry and, and wasn't able to talk," Jana Chapline says.

And yet, at home, Emily was chatting all the time.

A child psychologist told Emily's parents that their sweet-tempered child had become a willful, stubborn brat. The Chaplines weren't so sure.

"We didn't understand what, what we were up against, what we were dealing with, what she was dealing with," Kent Chapline says.

The Chaplines pulled Emily out of school and opted to teach her at home. But even as Emily remained silent in crowds, she craved the camaraderie of other children. So Jana searched for a new school — and finally found one.

"There were two teachers and they were just very loving and warm and accepting with her. And she immediately thrived in that environment," Jana Chapline says. "She still was not able to speak, but she was comfortable."

With this success, the Chaplines enrolled Emily in kindergarten. A psychologist there first suggested that Emily might suffer from selective mutism.

"It's a physical reaction to the anxiety and stress and this is what happens with their voices," Jana Chapline says. "It's like stage fright in a way … and the whole world's a stage."

"This would be at the extreme end of the spectrum of timidity or shyness, and the difference there would be that this interrupts functioning in every day," says Dr. Mimi Wright, who has been working with Emily.

Wright explains that Emily's fear of speaking in public — like in a school setting — is overwhelming.

"We've worked on self-esteem issues," Wright says. "And we've helped Emily to recognize her strengths."

According to Wright, Emily is not alone. Seven in 1,000 children suffer from this debilitating disorder — more than autism.

After four years of regular therapy and a lot of hard work, Emily is doing well.

"Her confidence is through the roof now," Jana Chapline says. "There was a time when she had absolutely no self-confidence, no self-esteem and the improvements have been so great in so many areas."

To see Emily today, she looks and plays like all the other kids, but she still struggles.

"She really is a happy child," Kent Chapline says. "But ultimately, I just want her to be happy throughout her life."

"My hope for her is that she finds something that is fulfilling for her to do long term that she finds joy in also, that allows the whole world to see Emily for who she is," Jana Chapline says. "She's — she's an amazing kid."