This topic of discussion goes beyond describing a shy or timid kiddo. Selective mutism is classified as an anxiety disorder in which a child demonstrates the inability to speak in certain social settings such as school or other community environments. Usually, the child will still speak in settings in which they feel the most comfortable. Selective mutism is usually diagnosed between the ages of 3 and 8 years old, which coincides with the time in a child’s life when their activities outside of the home become more frequent.
According to the SMart Center (2019), roughly 90% of children who are diagnosed with selective mutism have paired social anxiety or a social phobia. Aside from verbal silence, symptoms of selective mutism that a child may display include:
- Separation anxiety as a younger child
- Withdrawn, cautious or timid in new or unfamiliar situations
- Social anxiety
- Physical symptoms associated with anxiety such as tummy ache, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, headaches, nervous feelings, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
- Stiff, frozen body language
- Avoid eye contact with others when confronted
- In a handful of cases, associated developmental delays such as autism spectrum disorder or other communication disorders.
- Accompanying sensory processing difficulties
- Inflexible stubborn, moody, easily frustrated, depressed, and bossy at home.
(SMart Center, 2019, https://selectivemutismcenter.org/whatisselectivemutism/)
Selective mutism is quite rare, occurring in approximately .05% of children (Bressert, 2018). Some children with selective mutism have comorbid language or communication disorders, which makes talking to others very difficult. In some cases, children have the language but anxiety and fear is blocking their regular social participation. Selective mutism sometimes occurs amongst children who are immigrants. The stress and fear of learning and speaking a new language forces them into silence at school and other peer-related settings.
Regarding school, selective mutism can be a very debilitating condition for young children academically and socially. School tasks demand verbal communication including participating in class, giving a presentation, singing in a music class, participating in teams, reciting written work, and so on. Children’s primary opportunity to make friends is in a school setting, and without conversation that becomes a near impossible endeavor.
Selective mutism is drastically under-researched due to its rare occurrence, which leads to common misconceptions and understandings. Although there are noted similarities, selective mutism is NOT synonymous to shyness. Many parents, teachers, and clinicians believe that a child will eventually outgrow their shyness which is very true to an extent unless it’s not actually shyness to begin with.
For parents who are concerned about their children who are not speaking regularly outside of the home or in new social situations, selective mutism may not become a noticeable problem until grades start to slide and isolation begins to take place. It’s important to detect problems early so that your child is getting the help he or she needs.
Consult with relevant clinicians including a pediatrician, a school psychologist, and a speech-language pathologist. Your child will receive an accurate diagnosis as well as identified sources that may be causing the mutism. While some cases of selective mutism are language-based, a large portion of incidences stem from anxiety.
Here are some tips for parents and teachers on how to assist a child with selective mutism:
- Always think back to the source. If a child has selective mutism based on anxiety, then shoving extra reading material in their backpack is not going to make any improvements. On the other hand, if selective mutism is based on a communication disorder then having the child sit in a quiet corner might not be the answer either. Always go back to the source and ask yourself what is primarily causing the mutism before applying strategies.
- Go slow. Take your time and do not rush the child to talk. If the child picks up on you hurrying them along, that can contribute to an already present pile of anxiety. Start with having them converse with others they are familiar with and then slowly branch out. Chaperone them in new social situations, and very carefully phase yourself out.
- Minimize your own frustrations. It’s very easy for parents and teachers to lose their cool when their child’s progress is going much slower than anticipated. Keep your emotions in check and stay calm while teaching the child.
- Consult with specialists. Know that you are not alone. Feel free to consult with others who have a much larger knowledge base than you regarding selective mutism. Pediatricians, psychologists, speech language pathologists, behavior specialists, and occupational therapists are just a few professionals who can provide assessments and intervention ideas so that your child can succeed.
Shipon-Blum, E. (2019). Selective Mutism-A Comprehensive Overview. Selective Mutism, Anxiety, and Related Disorders (SMart) Treatment Center. https://selectivemutismcenter.org/whatisselectivemutism/). Viewed on Sept. 27, 2019
Bressert, S. (2018). Selective Mutism Symptoms. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/disorders/selective-mutism-symptoms/. Viewed on Sept. 27, 2019.