Does your child stop talking entirely in certain environments? Have teachers mentioned there might be an issue? Or do you yourself struggle to speak in some situations and suffer because of it? It might be selective mutism.
What is selective mutism?
Selective mutism means that in certain environments, or around certain people, you experience a freeze response where you can’t speak, no matter how much you want to.
Also referred to as ‘situational mutism’, it’s most common in children, particularly girls and those who have recently moved to a new country where they must learn another language.
not have another communication issue that better explains the problem, such as stuttering or autism.
But my child is so chatty at home
photo by: Caleb Woods
Children with selective mutism are often easily social or even very chatty when around people they are comfortable with, like family and friends, and in environments that feel safe.
This is why the issue can go undiagnosed until children start school, or are otherwise presented with new environments.
And note that some children with this issue aren’t totally mute or frozen even when in full anxiety. They might use a few words, or speak in a whisper, or manage to at least use gestures or nodding to communicate. But it will be a far cry from their usual self.
If your child suffers from selective mutism you might also find they suffer from the following:
Sadly, others might misunderstand you and think you are rude or defiant. So you might also feel very lonely.
And it can make day-to-day life really difficult. Things like calling a doctor to make an appointment might take hours or be impossible. If you are accused of something you didn’t do you can be unable to defend yourself. And things like job interviews might be so stressful you simply avoid them.
Myths about selective mutism
1. My child is being defiant.
Absolutely not. A child with selective mutism really can’t speak in certain situations no matter how much they want to. No amount of shaming or punishment can ‘make’ them speak, but it can certainly make them feel far worse than they already do.
2. My child must have been abused.
Research has found no direct link between selective mutism and abuse or trauma. While it is true that child abuse or trauma can lead to children suddenly not speaking, post-traumatic speaking issues mean a child stops talking in an environment they used to have no problems in.
3. They are choosing not to speak, I’m sure of it.
This condition was originally called ‘elective mutism’ due to a misunderstanding (that still can persist) that sufferers don’t want to speak. But again, this isn’t the case. The brain of sufferers seems to enter an anxiety-triggered ‘freeze’ mode beyond their control.
4. It’s a sign a child has intellectual difficulties.
To the contrary. Many children with selective mutism have an above average IQ and sense of perception and observation. They are very aware of other people’s feelings, more so than others of their age, and are more likely to have a strong moral compass.
Autism spectrum disorder and selective mutism share some characteristics. Both diagnoses see a child experience bouts of not speaking and of being sensitive to their environments.
A main difference is that children with autism can have speech challenges even in environments they feel most safe in, such as around family. And they will also have other issues like hand flapping or rocking and repetitive behaviours.
Children with selective mutism, on the other hand, in the right environment where they feel comfortable, will appear like any other child.
This said, a child with autism can have selective mutism, in that certain environments always cause them to stop communicating. But if the mutism is due to autism, then it will diagnosed just as that.
Treatment for selective mutism
There are several forms of treatment to help, and the right treatment plan depends on age and related issues.
Treatment generally focuses on lowering anxiety around talking rather than pushing for speech.
This can include things like ‘stimulus fading’, where your child talks with you or someone else they are comfortable with, another person is introduced, and you eventually leave. Or ‘shaping’, which introduces speech in stages like reading aloud, then interactive reading games, then talking activities, and finally a conversation. (Learn more about such treatments on the NHS Selective Mutism page).
Older children, adolescents, and adults will be offered cognitive behavioural therapy. It helps you challenge your thoughts, and understand just how your they are affecting your feelings, your body, and your behaviours.