Selective Mutism

Selective Mutism in young children (2.5 – 6 years)- Why won’t my child talk to anyone?

Have you ever wondered if your child is just shy, or if there is something more going on? Does he or she talk a lot at home but once you leave this safe environment, or someone new comes into it, your child stops talking?

It is common for ‘shy’ or ‘timid’ children to take a long time to warm up in new situations or to talk to new people. Selective mutism is more than this, often the child with selective mutism won’t talk to familiar people like extended family or their teachers, even though they see them regularly. Even after they have ‘warmed up’ in a new environment or with new people, they still don’t talk.

What is Selective Mutism?

Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder whereby a child has an inability to talk and communicate in specific settings, such as educational settings or the community. These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed1.

More than 90% of children with Selective Mutism also have social phobia or social anxiety1. They have an actual fear of talking and interacting socially where there is an expectation to speak and communicate. Many children with Selective Mutism have great difficulty responding when others speak to them, starting a conversation, or asking questions, either through talking or gesture (for example nodding their heads)1.

All children with Selective Mutism manage their fear differently. Some may not talk or gesture to anyone in specific settings, even if they usually talk to that person in a secure setting (for example their best friend or parents). Other children may be able to talk to a select few people, whisper or use gestures only. Some children’s fear may also prevent them from moving, resulting in them standing motionless, freezing, be expressionless or react to the immediate environment (for example a ball is thrown to them)1.

It is important to remember children with Selective Mutism are as normal and socially appropriate as other children in their comfortable, secure setting. They are often reported as being quite chatty, funny, engaging, and sometimes even bossy.

What causes Selective Mutism?

Most children have a genetic predisposition whereby it is common for anxiety-based conditions to occur family members, for example it is common for mum and dad to report they were shy growing up or are still shy and avoid certain social situations. Very often, these children show signs of severe anxiety, such as separation anxiety, frequent tantrums and crying, moodiness, inflexibility, sleep problems, and extreme shyness from infancy on1.

Some children may also have other disorders that may cause or exacerbate selective mutism:

  • Sensory Processing Disorders whereby children have difficulty processing specific sensory information (sounds, sights, touch, taste, smells) which leads to frustration and anxiety and withdrawal or avoidance of a situation
  • Mild speech and language difficulties whereby these difficulties increase the anxiety
  • Mild learning difficulties such as auditory processing disorder whereby these difficulties increase the anxiety

Traumatic experiences, abuse, or neglect do not cause Selective Mutism.

When does Selective Mutism start?

  • Most children are diagnosed between 3 – 8 years
  • Most parents thought their toddlers were 'just very shy' in social settings and 'just took a long time to warm up'
  • Can go unrecognized until child enters primary school where he/she is consistently confronted with the challenge of speaking in novel social settings
  • Often not recognized within the home environment
  • Often a considerable lag between onset of the disorder and time of identification and referral to a speech pathologist
  • Most children with Selective Mutism do NOT grow out of it and it left untreated, it can have negative ramifications1

Does Selective Mutism cause other difficulties?

Some suggest that some children with untreated selective mutism may develop difficulties with:

  • Expressive language skills (talking)
  • Receptive language skills (understanding)
  • Speech sound development

It is important to realize that with proper diagnosis and treatment, the prognosis for overcoming Selective Mutism is excellent!

Further Information

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