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Luiza Billiter, right, laughs with classmate Shakita Samuels before Ikego Elementary School closes for summer vacation. “Luiza never used to talk and now she won’t stop talking!” said eight-year-old Shakita.

Luiza Billiter, right, laughs with classmate Shakita Samuels before Ikego Elementary School closes for summer vacation. “Luiza never used to talk and now she won’t stop talking!” said eight-year-old Shakita. (Allison Batdorff / S&S)

Luiza Billiter, right, laughs with classmate Shakita Samuels before Ikego Elementary School closes for summer vacation. “Luiza never used to talk and now she won’t stop talking!” said eight-year-old Shakita.

Luiza Billiter, right, laughs with classmate Shakita Samuels before Ikego Elementary School closes for summer vacation. “Luiza never used to talk and now she won’t stop talking!” said eight-year-old Shakita. (Allison Batdorff / S&S)

None of Luiza Billiter’s Ikego Elementary School classmates ever heard the 9-year-old’s voice before this spring. Now, after six years of silence, Luiza is talking in school and even reading original poetry on the loudspeaker while classmate Kana Ruth gives her moral support.

None of Luiza Billiter’s Ikego Elementary School classmates ever heard the 9-year-old’s voice before this spring. Now, after six years of silence, Luiza is talking in school and even reading original poetry on the loudspeaker while classmate Kana Ruth gives her moral support. (Allison Batdorff / S&S)

ZUSHI, Japan — School psychologist Jessica Biggs plays a video clip from a few months ago.

In the video, she’s sitting across from smiling 9-year-old Luiza Billiter. They are holding hands, rocking back and forth in her office at Ikego Elementary School. Another third-grader, Ashlyn Tran, sits close by, her back to them.

They are pulling Luiza’s voice out. The child is visibly straining. She’s desperate to talk to her classmate, but seizes up in social situations.

Diagnosed with selective mutism, Luiza hadn’t spoken to anyone except her mother and younger brothers since she was 3½. Not a word in six years to adults, kids or even her father, a petty officer 1st class on the USS Kitty Hawk.

But now, on the video, the voice comes. It’s hoarse, rusty with disuse, but Biggs and Luiza coax it out together.

“What kind of fruit do you like?” Luiza asks Ashlyn, gruffly.

“Wow! You’re saying things!” Ashlyn, 9, beams and bounces. She’s never heard Luiza’s voice before. “Strawberries!”

Fast-forward a few months.

Luiza is reading a poem — an original haiku about Pokemon — over the school loudspeaker. Luiza chatters away to everyone now. Turns out, the dark-haired girl had a lot to say.

“Luiza is a real success story,” says teacher Jeff Sparling. “She’s our version of a miracle.”

A school projectMost teachers don’t want their students to speak up in class. But Sparling wanted nothing more than to hear Luiza pipe up. She was a highly intelligent, affectionate and seemingly happy student, but she couldn’t even answer roll call.

“We knew a lot was going on in her mind and that she wanted to speak,” Sparling said. “We could tell this voice wanted to bubble out of her.”

Luiza had met with psychologists before to no avail, said her mother, Geane Billiter.

“She just stayed quiet,” said Billiter, adding that Luiza’s silence started after the family moved from a previous assignment in Japan to Ohio. “We didn’t know what to do.”

Selective mutism — once thought of as rare — affects seven children in 1,000, according to a 2002 study by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The anxiety-based disorder is characterized by a child’s inability to speak in social situations. Because selective mutes can speak normally when they are comfortable — like when Luiza was alone with her mother and brothers — the disorder used to be confused with shyness or obstinacy.

“In most cases, selective mutism is social-anxiety-based,” psychologist Biggs said. “With Luiza, the words would get stuck in her throat. And, after almost six years, most everyone got used to her not talking. People would compensate for her, but no one knew what else to do. They just thought this is the way it’s going to be.”

But when she arrived last year at Ikego Elementary School, the K-3 school inside the U.S. Navy’s family housing complex near Yokosuka Naval Base, her condition became a school project.

The magic ingredient was time, Sparling said.

“Luiza did all the work; we just gave her the time to do it,” he said.

As Luiza’s teacher, he worked with her every morning before class. Biggs met with Luiza around lunchtime, using a number of methods to draw her out, including systemic desensitization — the psychological version of baby steps. Then the students got involved.

‘Character cash’Biggs called the students to her office one by one, first girls then boys, to work with Luiza in exercises similar to the one in which Ashlyn participated.

Sparling continued the work in the classroom, giving “character cash” to students who could draw Luiza out, first in whispers, and then challenging her to talk at arm’s length.

Then came the ultimate test — public speaking. The first time Luiza spoke in class was March 28, Sparling remembers.

“I got tough. I told her, ‘Yes, everyone is going to be looking at you, but you can do it. We’re ready for you,’” Sparling said. “Then the whole class started saying ‘You can do it, Luiza.’ It was like a sports event. And she did.”

Luiza remembers her first word.

“Shouldn’t,” she recalls — the class was working on contractions that day. “It felt great.”

And the next day, when Sparling called roll, there was Luiza’s voice again: “Good morning, sir.”

“Luiza has never regressed,” Sparling said. “She keeps moving forward. She works really hard.”

She talks on the phone now. She even called her father one day on the ship — an action unthinkable a year ago, her mother said. Luiza’s father cried when she first spoke to him, Billiter said.

“He was shocked and so happy,” Billiter said. “One day, she had a conversation. Now she waits for him to tell him what happened at school.”

Luiza’s “gruff” voice still reappears in times of high anxiety, when she tightens her neck, Biggs said. But those times are getting farther between.

“Now she talks to everyone, in the hospital, in the store,” Billiter said, laughing. “She doesn’t stop. I am relieved.”

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