Beauty queen who didn't speak in public until she was SEVEN finds her voice to become Miss England hope
Kirsty Heslewood, 23, from Hertfordshire suffered from selective mutism
Known in her school as 'the girl who wouldn't speak', Kirsty didn't utter a word outside of her home
Her silence was finally broken when her mother sent a video of her talking to be shown in her school assembly. 'I felt my secret was out,' she says
11:53 GMT, 18 May 2012
A woman who suffered from selective mutism has overcome her shyness to become a contender for the Miss England crown.
Kirsty Heslewood, 23, was once so shy she wouldn't speak to anyone outside her home and was known at her school in Hertfordshire as 'the girl who wouldn't speak'.
It wasn't until the age of seven that she began speaking at school and she gradually became more outspoken as she grew up. But it wasn't until she got into modelling as a teenager that she really found her confidence and she's now a contender for the Miss England crown after being named Miss Hertfordshire.
Blossomed: Kirsty has overcome her shyness to become a contender for the Miss England crown
Kirsty, from Bishops Stortford, said: 'Looking back I can’t believe the little girl who suffered from mutism was even me.
'My confidence has grown so much since those days, particularly over the past few years and nowadays I am certainly no wall flower.
'I guess it just shows that if you are determined, nurtured and encouraged, you can overcome anything.'
Kirsty would speak at home with her family as a child but when she started nursery at the age of four, she became crippled by an inability to speak.
Silence in class: Kirsty didn't speak at school from her first day at nursery until the age of seven
She recalls: 'It started the day I went to nursery school, I remember holding onto my Mum's legs whilst she tried to untie me. I wasn't crying, just holding on tight. I didn't want her to leave me and was shocked that I had to stay. I remember just wanting to cry and go home with my little brother. The nursery teachers were trying their best to cheer me up or make me talk to them or the other children.
'I was so shy and scared that I couldn't bring myself to speak even though I wanted to. Every morning when I was at the nursery, I didn't speak once.'
Kirsty's silence continued when she started primary school where she wouldn't speak to her friends or even answer the register.
She only responded to questions by making signs like nodding her head.
While the other children were intrigued by her inability to talk and nicknamed her 'the girl who wouldn't speak', Kirsty's teachers tried various attempts to get her to find her voice, initially without success.
'All the teachers knew that I didn't speak; some would try to get a sentence out of me, others would just accept it. I remember one teacher shouting at me saying, “you must answer the register in case there is a fire”, which just made me cry.
'The school didn't understand what was wrong. They didn't know if it was just a bad case of someone suffering from anxiety or shyness or if I just couldn't talk. Selective mutism wasn't known then.'
Selective mutism is a childhood anxiety disorder where a child cannot speak in most social situations despite being able to.
It usually begins in children under the age of five but often only becomes noticeable when they start school.
An estimated one in 150 children suffer from selective mutism in Britain. The causes of the problem are varied but can be prompted by a specific phobia, an inherited predisposition to anxiety, or if a child has problems processing sensory information. It can also occur in children who have suffered abuse or trauma.
Come a long way: Today, the beauty queen can't believe she was the little girl who suffered with selective mutism
For Kirsty, the problem developed from her anxiety at starting nursery, but then her silence at school became a habit she couldn't break, even though she wanted to.
'I actually really wanted to be able to talk and play like everyone else, but I felt like it had gone to far to break the silence,' she said. 'Finding that courage to say just one word was the hardest thing and I just couldn't do it.'
Teachers tried visiting Kirsty at her home, where she was a chatty child among her siblings and cousins, but she would freeze up when they were present.
Childhood disorder: An estimated one in 150 children suffer from selective mutism in Britain like Kirsty did
Kirsty's mother Kerry said it was an anxious time for her to as she couldn't fathom why her confident daughter disappeared outside their home.
'Kirsty was a very lively and outward going girl at home but when she got in public she just withdrew completely and became the shadow of herself,' she said.
'Looking at her now it is hard to believe she was so shy but at the time it was very worrying as the disorder was not recognised or identified.'
Some people doubted whether Kirsty could speak at all so Kerry decided to prove her daughter had a voice by sending the school a video of Kirsty playing at home, where she was talking freely and making voices for a puppet show.
Kirsty was stunned when the video was shown to her teachers and classmates in an assembly – but it gave her the release she needed to break her silence.
She explains: 'I was in a line, ready to walk into a class assembly, the TV was in there, all the teachers, headmaster, deputy head, helpers, cleaners, dinner ladies and anyone else who needed to see this piece of evidence.
'I had no idea what I was about to watch, I thought it would just be a casual afternoon watching a film.
'Then they turned the TV on and up I popped playing with Sooty and Sweep talking properly and making voices for my puppets.
'I was so surprised “why am I on the TV” I thought to myself, then I saw everyone else's reactions. The children were shouting “Kirsty can speak” whilst the teachers just smiled.
'My friends were so surprised and shocked to hear me speak, they started asking questions and talking to me, and eventually I started answering back. Once everyone knew my secret I felt I was allowed to talk.'
On the catwalk: Kirsty, left, recently joined Amy Childs to help model the TOWIE star's fashion range
Progress was slow, but Kirsty gradually began to talk more and more at school. She continued to be shy when she was at secondary school but gained in confidence when she took her A Levels and when her good looks were noticed by modelling agents.
She said: 'I started gaining confidence when studying for my A Levels as I had to read out aloud in class, do presentations and be confident enough to ask questions. Gaining good grades took priority and in the end I felt being shy wouldn't allow me to do as well.
'I also started getting modelling agencies approach me and doing some modelling work, which also helped my confidence.'
Since taking up modelling, Kirsty has worked with The Only Way is Essex's Amy Childs, modelling her fashion range, and as well as having success in beauty pageants.
Found her voice: Studying for A Levels and becoming a model helped Kirsty grow in confidence
In March, she impressed the judges to be crowned Miss Hertfordshire, giving her a place in the Miss England final later this year.
Kirsty said is delighted to be taking part in the competition and her success is testament to how far she has come since being that little girl at school who wouldn't speak a word.
'I can't wait for the Miss England grand final', she said. 'Obviously I would love to win but even if I don’t, the whole experience has been amazing. Not only have I made some great friends, but I have increased my confidence, self-esteem and ability to speak.'