What is Selective Mutism?

Elisa is 6 years old and can dance and sing in front of her family…. she might even be the next Idol! But in music class she is paralyzed by fear and can’t say a word.

Sam is 7-year-old and loves playing basketball with his brothers and talks excitedly about the World cup. At school, during break time, he stands alone watching the other children play and doesn’t speak when others ask him if he wants to play.

Everyone gets shy from time to time. In fact, having just enough shyness can be helpful because it can protect us from doing things that may be embarrassing or awkward. But when shyness keeps a child or teen from speaking, then it is Selective Mutism.

Selective Mutism is a severe anxiety disorder where a child is:

  • Not able to speak (or ‘mute’) in certain situations (for example, at school or public places)
  • Able to speak where she feels relaxed (like at home)
  • This condition is known to begin early in life and can be transitory, such as on starting

school or on being admitted to hospital, but in rare cases it may persist and last

right through a child’s school life.

Children with Selective Mutism are not being mute ‘on purpose’. They are not trying to ‘control’ a situation by being mute. Not speaking is the way they protect themselves from severe anxiety.

Because anxiety is at the root of Selective Mutism.

What causes Selective Mutism?

No single cause has been established, though emotional, psychological and social factors may influence its development. In the past these children were thought to be manipulative or angry, but recent research points strongly to social anxiety, similar to ‘stage fright’. This may lead to other behaviours, such as limited eye contact and facial expression, physical rigidity, nervous fidgeting and withdrawal.

Some facts:

Selective mutism was once thought to be very rare, but the incidence is said to be almost identical to the rate of narrowly defined autism.

It is more common in girls than in boys.

Children with selective mutism are likely to:

  • Find it difficult to look at you when they are anxious – they may turn their heads away and seem to ignore you. You might think that they are being unfriendly, but they are not – they just do not know how to respond.
  • Not smile, or look blank or expressionless when anxious – in school, they will be feeling anxious most of the time and this is why it is hard for them to smile, laugh or show their true feelings, even when they have a wicked sense of humour.
  • Move stiffly or awkwardly when anxious, or if they think that they are being watched.
  • Find it incredibly difficult to answer the register or to say hello, goodbye or thank you – this can seem rude or hurtful, but it is not intentional.
  • Be slow to respond – in any way – to a question
  • Worry more than other people
  • Be very sensitive to noise or touch or crowds
  • Be intelligent, perceptive and inquisitive
  • Be very sensitive to the thoughts and feelings of others
  • Find it difficult to express their own feelings
  • Have good powers of concentration
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