When I heard the term Selective Mutism (SM), I’ll admit that I wasn’t sure what it was. It was just something I identified with because I thought it meant someone who doesn’t talk. I didn’t know much more than that.
My assumptions about the condition were corrected when I began researching it. Selective Mutism, as defined by Child Mind Institute, is a severe anxiety disorder in which a child is unable to communicate in certain settings. Symptoms typically become observable between the ages of 2 and 6. Most parents will confess they noticed something unusual about their child’s behavior when their child hit preschool or kindergarten. In my case, there were evident signs of the condition when I was just 2 years old. According to my mom, I would spit at people whom I didn’t know when I wanted out of a situation. Therapists and psychologists are both in agreement it’s a very treatable condition. They also caution that if not treated during childhood the condition can last into a person’s adult years leading to problems in relationships, jobs, and college. (I can verify that this is true from my own personal experience.)
The most noticeable symptom of SM is a child’s complete silence in certain situations. Parents report that their child is talkative at home, but then shuts down at school. I like to think of this as the kid having a dual personality. Kids act completely normally and are talkative when they are in their comfort zone. Yet, when immersed in nervewracking situations, they become very inhibited. It’s not only the environments that make these kids freeze in fear; they have a limited number of people that they talk to. In my own experience, my true personality as a dorky kid was unveiled at home around my immediate family. It was when I entered into large settings that I reverted into my shell of silence. This is the case with most SM kids. Their immediate family and close friends are people with whom they will speak with. School, restaurants, shopping malls, and other busy environments are where they shut down.
For some people who are unfamiliar with SM and anxiety it can be confusing when they meet a kid that doesn’t talk at all. Assumptions are made that the kid is defiant, autistic, or have been exposed to trauma. All of these are just not true. That’s why I wanted address some of these myths:
- Myth #1: Children with SM have experienced trauma or abuse
- Children who have SM are comfortable speaking at home but are overcome with an extreme fear of talking in certain social situations. This is not linked to any kind of trauma or abuse.
- Myth #2: SM is a shyness that kids will outgrow
- Selective mutism is a type anxiety that is more complex than shyness. It’s a paralyzing fear leading to the inability to speak. Without proper support, kids will miss out on age-appropriate activities and their academics will suffer.
- Myth #3: Kids with SM have speech problems
- Kids with SM actually have no trouble speaking in their native language. They speak freely and fluently when they at ease.
- Myth #4: Children with SM are defiant
- Selectively Mute children are not being stubborn or exerting their own control over other people. Children experience it as an inability to speak.
- Myth #5: Kids with SM can speak if adults put more pressure on them
- Pressure to speak is exactly what children with SM find most paralyzing. The more pressure that is put on them, the more inhibited they become.
- Myth #6: Selective Mutism is a form of autism
- When kids with Selective Mutism feel anxious, they may avoid eye contact, give a blank expression, and a frozen posture, all of which may look like an autism spectrum disorder. However, Selective Mutism is fundamentally different from autism; while children with autism lack social and communication skills, children with SM experience the inability to speak out of extreme fear.
Even though lack of speech is the most obvious symptom, SM is more than just an inability to speak. Kids who are selectively mute aren’t able to communicate effectively. A child with SM will also have difficulty in communicating their basic needs (using the bathroom, eating, drinking, and injuries) and moving around their environment. For me, eating in front of other kids was something I found discomforting. I remember turning my body at an angle to hide my food from view, chewing my food really slowly, and waiting until most of the crowd had left to eat my food. I also found it extremely nerve-wracking just to walk across the classroom. I tried to move as little as possible so I didn’t draw attention to myself. When I arrived in my classes, I would sit facing the board the entire time and not turn my head to look at other people. (In hindsight I probably drew more attention to myself by remaining motionless and speechless.)
Ok. I know that that was a lot of information. But I think it’s important for people to understand what SM really is. If you suspect your child has SM, therapists and counselors both recommend seeking professional help. I’m not a professional who can treat children with the condition, but there are many therapists in the U.S. and other countries who can help. With that being said, there are some things you can do to support your child (or student). You can also share these strategies with teachers or other adults. It’s vital that everyone is on board with helping the child. Listed below are some strategies that can be implemented in the classroom when working with a selectively mute child:
- Allow for the individual to warm-up when they are in a social setting
- I know it sounds crazy, but one of the best things to do initially is to mostly ignore the child. Give the individual time to observe and listen to what’s going on around them. This puts them in a position of control and they can join in when they feel ready. The less pressure there is on the kid to speak the more comfortable they will become.
- Talk “around” the child at first with the focus on other people
- Again, don’t talk directly to the child. Talk to the people the child is with. And talk about an activity or movie or book. This is something that really helped me. I felt more comfortable if conversations were directed to friends or family rather than me. After having some time to listen to the conversation, I would add my own comments when I wanted to.
- Focus on a prop or activity when speaking with the child
- For kids with SM, speaking about themselves increases their anxiety. I’m not sure why, but I could talk about anything and anyone in great detail except myself. If people spoke to me about an object or activity, I had a much easier time speaking. For young kids, the object could be a puppet or stuffed animal. For older kids, talking about a sport or other hobby is helpful.
- Ask choice and direct questions with the focus on the subject or prop
- There are certain questions that are more effective when communicating with kids that have SM. Open-ended questions such as, “What color is the rabbit?” don’t work quite so well. Kids will respond with a blank stare. Choice questions give the child two answers to choose from. This could be a question such as, “Is the rabbit white or blue?” (Notice how a silly answer was one of the options.? Humor works wonders with these kids.) A direct question is one that they can answer with a “yes” or “no”. This could be, “Is the rabbit’s fur blue?” followed by, “Is the rabbit’s fur white?”
- Allow for hesitation
- Kids may not always respond to questions right away. They may stare blankly at the speaker. However, that doesn’t mean that they won’t respond at all. If kids don’t talk right away, wait 5 seconds (one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand…). If they still don’t talk, try asking the question a different way. Don’t move on and ignore the child. That only reinforces that they don’t have to communicate.
- Accept non-verbal communication
- Children may not feel comfortable with verbal communication right away, and that’s ok. This doesn’t mean that the people around shouldn’t address them. Giving kids other options for communication is an important first step. This way they aren’t pushed so far out of their comfort zone that communication is impossible. Forms of non-verbal communication can include writing, head nods, thumbs up/down, pointing, and signs.
Selective Mutism does not have to be a condition that lasts forever. It is very treatable. But kids need help overcoming it. They aren’t in control of managing their emotions at first. Being honest with kids is hugely important. Some kids don’t even realize they have a problem. The process can feel long and tiring. (It took me many years to overcome.) But with a lot of patience and support, kids can overcome this and learn to function normally.
Selective Mutism (SM) Basics. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/guide/selective-mutism/
Myths About Selective Mutism. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/myths-about-selective-mutism/
Talarico, A. T. DOs & DON’Ts for Interacting with Those with Selective Mutism. Retrieved from https://selectivemutismcenter.org/dos-donts-for-interacting-with-those-with-selective-mutism/