The Do’s & Do Not’s of Interacting with a Child with Selective Mutism (SM)

This is an extract from the book written by Dr. Elisa Shipon-Bloom from the Selective Mutism SMART Center.

When interacting with a child with Selective Mutism, DO:

  • Allow for warm-up time.
  • Monitor the child’s body language.
  • Talk “around” the child at first with focus on parents or siblings.
  • Get down on the child’s level and focus on a prop.
  • Ask choice and direct questions to the child with focus on the prop.
  • Allow for hesitation.
  • Re-ask questions if needed.
  • Accept nonverbal communication (e.g., pointing, nodding, gesturing) without an expectation for speech.
  • Accept the child’s level of communication as the first step to securing comfort.
  • Understand that strategies can be used to help the child progress into speech, and that developing the child’s comfort, engagement, and nonverbal communication is a vital step in the process.
When interacting with a child 

with Selective Mutism, DO NOT:

  • Try to be “the one who gets this child to speak.” These efforts did not work in the past, are not working now, and will never work in the future!
  • Disregard warm-up time.
  • Approach the child without preparation.
  • Look directly at the child without focusing on a prop.
  • Ask open-ended questions, which require the child to think in order to formulate an answer.
  • Ask, bribe, or beg the child to talk to you.h
  • Appear upset if the child does not respond to you.

Suggested Games and Activities to Complete with Relatives & Friends!

  • Show off school work, drawings, photo albums, etc. where the relative can ask direct/choice questions regarding the ‘prop’ shown
  • Play board games
  • Card games (Go Fish, War)
  • Complete back/forth interview games
  • Jokes & Riddles
  • Treasure Hunts
  • Puppets
  • Eye Spy
  • Cooking
  • Art Projects
  • Helping around the house

During these games and activities, relatives, friends, or school staff should ask the child questions.

To reiterate, it is how these questions are asked that will make the difference. For example, if the child is typically mute with someone, but becoming nonverbal, using a parent, sibling, or someone else the child is verbal with as a Verbal Intermediary® is suggested. As the child responds by telling his or her parent, the relative should repeat what was said. The repetition of what the child said, if done in a very subtle way, helps the child know that they were heard and it was not a “big deal”. Therefore, when repeating, eye contact should be minimized and a very nonchalant, no-big-deal attitude should be adopted.
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