Girl Who Overcame Selective Mutism Anxiety Disorder Wows the Crowd at Penn and Teller Magic Show

Rachel Ling Gordon wasn’t always so outgoing. When she was a toddler, she was diagnosed with selective mutism, a social communication anxiety disorder.

Wowing the crowd at a magic show is no small feat, especially when you take to the stage at acclaimed magicians Penn and Teller's performance. To see an 11-year-old girl do it is particularly impressive. And to learn that 11-year-old girl lives with a social communication anxiety disorder that affected her ability to speak as a toddler makes her standing ovation-receiving performance spectacular to behold. 

Rachel Ling Gordon was the youngest to appear on “Penn and Teller: Fool Us,” magicians Penn and Teller's CW show. 

“We have seen the future of magic and its name is Rachel Ling Gordon,” Penn exclaimed.

Rachel is a natural on stage. Not only is her bubbly personality contagious but so is her passion for magic.

“During COVID, I really found my passion for magic,” says the sixth-grader from Westchester, New York. “I would read books on magic and just watch things on the internet. Also, I would FaceTime or Zoom with my friends every week, and we would do magic tricks together.”

But Rachel wasn’t always so outgoing. When she was a toddler, she was diagnosed with selective mutism.

“[I couldn’t] speak outside of [my] home. My fingers were always in my mouth. My head was down and when people would talk to me, I would just freeze. I just couldn't say a word,” Rachel says. 

“It was difficult in the beginning because when we discovered she had selective mutism, we were caught off guard,” dad James Gordon says. “In the house she was very talkative. She seemed like a normal child. My wife and I thought she was just shy.”

Selective mutism effects, on average, 3.5 out of every 500 children, according to Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum, president and director of the Selective Mutism Anxiety and Related Disorders Treatment Center and president of the Selective Mutism Research Institute. 

“About 90% of individuals have social anxiety, so the parents see them as shy, timid, but it's not until they enter into a daycare or a school setting where they realize this child isn't speaking. It often surprises parents because these kids are usually quite chatty at home,” says Shipon-Blum, who has been a doctor for 34 years. 

For the past 28 years, she’s focused on treating and studying selective mutism after her daughter was misdiagnosed. 

“It was very misunderstood and misdiagnosed, so it became my life's mission to try to understand it because the term ‘selective mutism’ is really not a great term for this and it really confuses everybody," she says. "That's one reason it's very misunderstood and mismanaged, frankly.”

Shipon-Blum says the first step in treating the disorder is understanding the individual and why they're not communicating. It's only then that it's possible to develop a step-by-step treatment plan for home, the outside world and school.

That’s exactly what Rachel’s parents did. 

“She had more play dates," her father says. "My wife and I taught her more through our actions than pushing her. We found out that the wrong solution is to say, ‘why don't you talk?’ Which we initially did. We learned that we're supposed to just be role models and show her that we're very friendly when we meet people.”

Selective mutism does not only affect children. Over the years, Shipon-Blum has worked with teens and adults thought to be shy but who were not overcoming their fears. “If an individual doesn't overcome it, they develop the ramifications of untreated anxiety – which can be worsening anxiety, generalized anxiety, specific phobias, and depression and self-medication with drugs and alcohol and school refusal,” Shipon-Blum says. 

Rachel and her parents could see her progress in working through selective mutism action when she entered a modeling competition with a friend. “It was kind of farfetched that she would actually be able to walk down the runway, but we said, let's give it a try, maybe with a friend, she'll be able to do it,” James says. That led to walking in a show for New York Fashion Week. But when reporters wanted to interview the young girl who stole the show afterwards, Rachel froze when all the microphones were in her face. 

As part of therapy, Rachel was enrolled in acting classes. Her acting teacher thought she had a good voice and encouraged her to take singing lessons. She also plays piano and has performed four times at Carnegie Hall. 

When she was 7, Rachel was cast as Cindy Lou Who in a touring production of  “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Rachel feels that was a turning point in overcoming her obstacles. She also does voiceover work.

Now she’s an ambassador for the Selective Mutism Association and Smart Center, where she volunteers a few times a year. “Being an ambassador is really cool. I get to sing for all the children who have the anxiety that I had. I just really want them to know that they could do anything and they could create miracles,” she says. 

It was an audition that landed her a spot on “Penn and Teller: Fool Us.” She flew to Las Vegas and worked with producers to beef up her act for TV. Her appearance has caught the attention of producers for “America’s Got Talent” and she and her parents are discussing a possible opportunity there. But to hear her describe herself, Rachel is an average middle-schooler. After school, she does her homework and practices her magic. 

“It's amazing how humble she is. She never discusses her accomplishments or her many talents. The teachers have told us many times that they didn't have any clue and that she is very quiet when it comes to discussing those things," James says. "I think that's wonderful that she's a humble, modest child."

 All of this has been a dream come true for Rachel, who still has some anxiety in uncomfortable settings, and as a result, must work that much harder to rise to the occasion during performances, which she's dedicated to doing. 

“Doing what I love, which is performing on a stage, distracts me from my anxiety and it makes me feel confident," she says. "I love to perform, and just being in front of an audience makes me really happy."

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