Selective mutism is an anxiety-based social communication disorder. Children with selective mutism are quite capable of speaking in situations where they feel comfortable, like at home with family and perhaps with a few close friends. However, in other social settings their anxiety makes it difficult or impossible for them to speak, even if they really want to. Many children appear to have two opposite personalities being quite loud, funny, talkative, and even bossy at home, yet in other settings they are very reserved and may remain unresponsive and mute and seem to ignore other people who are trying to communicate with them.
There is a broad spectrum of severity when it comes to selective mutism. A child may be severely limited in their communication, standing frozen and motionless when expected to speak. Sometimes the child will only engage in nonverbal communication like nodding their head, pointing, or whispering softly. Other children are able to get by with very minimal verbal answers when absolutely necessary, but will never initiate conversation or advocate for their needs (like asking to use the restroom, or telling someone when they are hurt). A key defining factor of selective mutism is the persistence. Shy children eventually warm up and communicate normally. The child with selective mutism may never warm up, or may appear to warm up and be relaxed, but persists in being mute. To make the diagnosis, a child must remain mute for a month or more in a specific situation, such as school.
So, why don’t we just give the child some time to mature and let them speak when they are ready?
If you think your child, or a child you know may have selective mutism, it is important to know that most children won’t just grow out of it on their own. In fact, the more they remain silent, the more entrenched the behavior becomes and the harder it is to overcome. They don’t speak because they are paralyzed with fear, and the fear keeps growing as they keep avoiding. The younger the child starts therapy the easier it is to treat. Effective therapy aims to decrease anxiety and help the child face their fear in a very supportive and structured way. Read more on effective treatments here.
Click here for a list of professionals that parents of children with selective mutism have recommended, who understand how to treat selective mutism effectively.