Selective Mutism: A real story. Early intervention was the key.

As you all know I have worked with children with Selective Mutism for 10 years and with the permission of the parents, I am starting to write REAL stories of families and their experiences. All names and places have been changed to keep confidentiality.

This is the story of Cieran, a lovely 3 years old who was so aware of his own anxiety… he was desperate to play with the other children but no words would come out… His parents took a very active role and we worked together to create the right environments and the right strategies so the mutism was not maintained through the adult’s behaviors.

The partnership between the parents, the nursery, the extended family and myself was fundamental. His parents were brave to change their behaviour and involve everyone around them.

How did you notice that he had Selective Mutism?

Cieran’s behavior, facial expressions, and ability to verbally communicate totally changed when faced with interactions with non-family adults.  He used to become practically frozen & un-responsive.  He had never spoken to a non-family adult before the age of 3.5 years.

We researched what the issue could be.  Bought books (which frankly were a waste of money).  We decided to contact a private therapist (Anna).  We all worked together on a plan such observations at nursery and giving staff practical guidance, as well as to our friends & family.  We altered how we dealt with Cieran in such ‘trigger’ scenarios.

What did you find most useful

Three things made the biggest difference:

  1. The SLT gave us a “Step by step” guidance relating to many small changes & steps to follow; essentially building up his confidence and exposure in relation to his ‘trigger’ situations.
  2. We moved him to a new nursery where his friends from the street, whom he already knew, attended.  This meant that he had established talking habits with them, making the transition easier.
  3. Getting his nursery to work with the same plan that we built with the SLT, which meant that he was able to build consistently as opposed to only when with us.

What steps did your child take

Cieran became very brave and started to use an altered voice, or sometimes a baby voice with non-family adults.  This quickly moved on to an almost normal voice within an hour of a breakthrough.

We found that he was far more likely to make the break-through if there was a reward – i.e. ‘Cieran, if you fancy an ice-cream, go and ask the lady in the shop for it’.

What would you tell her the parents

  • Don’t force the child to speak, simply make the situation as relaxed and natural as possible.
  • Don’t make a fuss at all when he makes a break-through – as tough as this is to contain!
  • Ask all family members and friends to refrain from asking the child direct questions, as the child will speak when ready.  When asked a question and then being silent before being ready will only re-inforce the mute element of the child’s character.
  • Get ‘buy-in’ from nursery / school by way of meetings in which the guidance from Anna can be discussed.
  • Tell all those who come into contact with the child never to highlight the mutism, or to say things like ‘are you shy’.

Cieran is now using his voice to communicate at school and he is going from strength to strength. I am grateful to have been part of such a change.

Anna Biavati-Smith

Specialist Speech and Language Therapist

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