If you visit her at home you would never guess that Sarah has Selective Mutism. She’s bubbly and talkative and interacts with her siblings and parents like any other five-year-old. But as soon as Sarah enters her kindergarten classroom she goes silent. When she’s at school, or in other social settings where she is expected to communicate, Sarah’s ability to speak becomes paralyzed by her anxiety. She avoids eye contact, doesn’t smile and prefers to play by herself in the corner of the room.
Most children are diagnosed with Selective Mutism between the ages of three and eight. It’s classified as an anxiety disorder—more than 90% of children with selective mutism also have social phobia. Sometimes mistaken for defiance and an unwillingness to speak, kids with selective mutism are not just avoiding conversation; they feel incapable of being verbal and describe their vocal chords as being frozen or stuck. Very often these children show signs of severe anxiety and shyness early on in their lives, including separation anxiety, frequent tantrums and crying, and problems with sleep and moodiness.
Selective Mutism can show up in a variety of ways: some children will talk, but only in a whisper, some are willing to speak with one, or a few other children, but not with teachers or other adults, and some are frozen, unable to speak with anyone at all.
Unlike kids who are extremely shy, kids with selective mutism cannot be coaxed into interacting verbally. Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum, President and Director of the Selective Mutism, Anxiety, & Related Disorders Treatment Center (SMart Center), explains what happens inside the brain of a child suffering from this disorder. “When confronted with a fearful scenario, the amygdala receives signals of potential danger (from the sympathetic nervous system) and begins to set off a series of reactions that will help individuals protect themselves”. Since these kids’ brains perceive social situations outside their home as unsafe, their flight or fight response kicks in. This means that school, birthday parties and trips to the mall make them unable to speak.
Shipon-Blum explains that Selective Mutism is sometimes mistakenly identified as a aspect of autism or an indication of severe learning disabilities. Until the last few years, there hasn’t been an abundant amount of research done on the disorder and some results have been based on subjective findings from a study of a limited number of children. There’s been a common misconception that kids who are selectively mute will grow out of it, but that’s not the case— it has to be diagnosed and treated.
The Selective Mutism Association advises that parents and professionals avoid putting pressure or expectations on kids, sending the message that it’s okay to be scared to speak. They add that most parents and professionals make the mistake of using pressure or bribes to change kids’ behavior before they learn more about what’s going on. In Sarah’s case, once her parents were able to let her know they understood her struggle and acknowledged her fear as valid, they took the first step in helping her overcome her Selective Mutism.
Educating yourself about the disorder is an important first step. Both the Selective Mutism Association website and Dr. Shipon-Blum’s website, SMart Center have a lot of in-depth information. In addition, take a look at the The Silence Within, a guide for teachers and parents and a video portrait of Lee, a child with Selective Mutism.