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Marsha Pinto Argues for the Power of Introverts in a Talkative World

Marsha Pinto has become a media celebrity and national spokesperson for speech-language pathology's role in fighting negative stereotypes of people who are shy and introverted.

By Dave DeFusco

Last year, Marsha Pinto, a speech pathologist and graduate of the M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology, received a referral for a 7-year-old student with selective mutism, an anxiety disorder that inhibits him from speaking in certain social situations. Not only would he not speak, he wouldn't venture inside the classroom, instead lingering by the door to avoid the gaze of his classmates.

Over the next several months, Pinto, a clinical supervisor in the San Jose Unified School District, taught the boy, who had severe autism, how to communicate yes, no and help in sign language and to convey meaning by pointing to things. The boy grew close to Pinto, who is an introvert and saw some of the boy’s social anxiety in herself. When she had gained his confidence, she was able to ease him into the classroom and start working on vocalizations.

Vocalizations are sounds that children use before they learn to talk and are grouped into two categories: speech-like and non-speech. Speech-like vocalizations include consonant and vowel sounds (ex: mama, dada, nana) and non-speech vocalizations include cooing, burping and laughing.

Pinto spoke to college student ambassadors at the National Education Association's Aspiring Educators Conference in June.

For this part of the therapy, Pinto brought in stuffed animals. The boy took a special liking to a stuffed cat and began vocalizing meow as a way to initiate conversation. He then used it as a puppet for his voice when talking to others. At first, he repeated certain words and phrases he enjoyed—something that children with autism tend to do—and once others responded positively, he began repeating phrases that he heard from his favorite peers and cartoons.

“The biggest win was when his teacher told me he was beginning to ask for help when a worksheet was too hard for him to complete,” said Pinto. “Looking back, I realized my introverted personality came in handy because while everyone was hounding this student to talk while talking to him, the real sweet spot was in having someone just listen to him whether it be a gesture or sound he made.”

During her time at the Katz School, Pinto did an internship with the New York City Board of Education District 75 that, she said, has been important to her success in working with children with diverse needs, such as ADHD, selective mutism, craniofacial anomalies and visual impairment. She credits the Katz School’s "Pediatric Swallowing and Airway Management" and "SLP in the Schools" courses with giving her the skills to recognize and diagnose the underlying conditions that afflict her students.

“Our unique medically focused speech-language pathology curriculum empowers students with the knowledge to identify developmental and neurological deficits that improves the diagnosis of complex medical cases," said Dr. Marissa Barrera, assistant dean of health sciences and program director of the M.S. in Speech-Language Pathology at the Katz School.

Given her expertise in child and language development, Pinto is a rising star in the field and called upon frequently by local TV news for her insights. She also has been an invited guest at conferences hosted by the National Assembly of America, State of California and Santa Clara County to address other professionals in the field. It's a stunning turnabout for someone who grew up shy and too scared to initiate conversation with friends. From speaking to 8,000 college students on their struggles as introverts to a National Education Association private livestream with President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden on issues impacting speech and language services in the United States, Pinto has blossomed into an outspoken advocate for those with social anxiety disorders.

While the terms introvert, shy and even social anxiety are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same. The American Psychological Association defines shyness as the tendency to feel awkward or tense during social interactions. Social anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is a mental health condition characterized by an intense and persistent fear of being watched and judged by others that gets in the way of daily life.

Introverts, said Pinto, are mistaken for being antisocial. Rather, they’re keen observers and deep thinkers who are more comfortable preparing responses than speaking extemporaneously. In 2013, she founded Softest Voices, a nonprofit that seeks to fight negative stereotypes of people who are shy and introverted.

“I think the main misconception is that being an introvert is a choice, like we're making the decision not to talk to someone,” said Pinto. “But it's just a personality trait. Quiet people really have the loudest minds.”