The first time I heard about Selective Mutism (SM) was while working at a middle school. One of the 6th grade girls in my class was diagnosed with the condition.
I remember being clueless when I first heard the term. It wasn’t something I’d heard of before. However, the condition intrigued me because I could relate to being so quiet like the girl I’d just met. So, I set out to research Selective Mutism (SM).
What is Selective Mutism?
Selective Mutism, as defined by Child Mind Institute, is a severe anxiety disorder in which a child is unable to speak in certain settings. Symptoms typically become observable between the ages of 2 and 6. Most parents notice something unusual when their child enters preschool or kindergarten.
Therapists who deal with selectively mute children say that it is very treatable. They also caution that if not treated during childhood the condition can last into a person’s adult years. This can lead to problems in relationships, jobs, and college.
The most noticeable symptom of SM is a child’s complete silence in certain situations. Children with SM tend to be chatty at home, but shut down at school. Contrasting behavior creates a seemingly dual personality in selectively mute children. They act normally when they are in their comfort zone. Yet, they become very inhibited when immersed in anxiety-inducing situations.
Additionally, the people within each environment have an impact on the child’s behavior. Selectively mute children have a limited number of people that they talk to. Generally immediate family, some extended family, and very close friends are the people that children will speak to comfortably. People the child is unfamiliar with will result in the child becoming mute.
A child’s pattern of who they will speak to is usually dependent on who has heard them talk. The fear of kids with SM tends to be not necessarily speaking, but having people shower them with attention for talking. Therefore, children avoid speaking in the settings and to people who have not heard their voice.
There are many assumptions that SM kids are defiant, autistic, or have been exposed to trauma. All of these are not true and can be harmful. That’s why it becomes important to debunk 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.
Tips and Tricks
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 communicating their basic needs (using the bathroom, eating, drinking, and injuries) and moving around their environment. They might opt to eat when nobody is looking or move about when nobody can see them.
Knowing how to make the child feel safe and effectively engage them is critical in getting them to talk. There are several strategies every adult can use to support a child with selective mutism regardless of their title. It’s vital that everyone is aware of how to support 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
- One of the best things to do initially is to not engage the child initially. Give the child 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
- Don’t talk directly to the child. Talk to the people the child is with. And talk about an activity or movie or book. After having some time to listen to the conversation, the kid will add their own commentary to the conversation.
- Focus on a prop or activity when speaking with the child
- For kids with SM, speaking about themselves increases their anxiety. Find an object or activity to talk about as you interact with the child. 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. The process of helping kids through it can feel long and tiring. But with a lot of patience and support, kids can overcome it and live free of worry.
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/