Selective mutism has not been recognised medically as an anxiety disorder for very long, but is actually experienced by 1 in 140 children. It usually starts during childhood and can continue into adulthood if it is left untreated or there are significant underlying issues.
What is selective mutism?
Selective mutism is a form of anxiety disorder and is characterised as an inability to speak in specific social circumstances. These circumstances could involve multiple people, such as within a class at school or with specific people who are unfamiliar or not seen very often. Selective mutism isn’t where a person chooses not to or refuses to speak, they fins themselves unable to speak. They suffer from a ‘freeze’ response to the situation which triggers feelings of panic. This response does not occur in every situation and the child may be able to speak freely with other people, such as family or friends.
How can I recognise selective mutism?
Selective mutism is most common in young children aged between and four, and is more common in girls. It can also occur more frequently within families who are learning a second language.
The main sign to look for is a difference in how a child engages with people around them, coupled with a frozen facial expression and stillness in their body when required to talk. You may also notice a lack of eye contact and the child becoming cling, shy or withdrawn and being nervous or awkward in social situations.
What causes selective mutism?
It can be difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for a child’s selective mutism but experts regard it as a phobia of talking to specific people, and that anxiety is the cause of the phobia. There is no link between autism and selective mutism, but it is not uncommon for children with autism to have some selective mutism.
Selective mutism can also be the result of other childhood issues such as hearing or sensory problems, post traumatic stress or separation anxiety. It can be successfully treated in childhood through a number of approaches, with medication only used for older children and adults. Initial treatments are aimed at reducing or eliminating the anxiety that causes the selective mutism.
Supporting a child with selective mutism
There are a number of ways that you can support a child in your care who has selective mutism.
- In the early stages or if they are very young you can encourage the use of gestures, such as nodding or shaking their head for answering yes or no.
- Praising the child for any form of communication and social interaction, whether this is verbal or not.
- Refrain from pressuring or challenging the child to speak. Instead, let them understand that it is fine for them to speak when they are ready.
- When the child does speak, respond to them in the same way that you would with another child.
- Don’t avoid putting the child into social situations but help them to feel comfortable in them, even if that involves not talking. Maintain a dialogue where you can to demonstrate that the environment is ‘safe’.
Dealing with a child with selective mutism requires a lot of compassion, empathy and patience. Whilst treatment is available and is usually very successful, there’s no overnight fix and is dependent on the child being part of a positive environment.
Find out more about Selective Mutism on our Selective Mutism course