Selective mutism, sometimes known as situational mutism, is a social anxiety disorder, where a child or young person is able to speak fluently in some social situations, but is completely mute in others.
There is a lot of misunderstanding around the condition. The child is not 'choosing' not to speak. They find themselves unable to speak.
Children with selective mutism need to work with a trained professional, usually a Speech and Language Therapist, taking a structured approach to reducing the fear of speaking. It is important that the child is able to trust the clinician, and that very small steps are taken, in agreement with the child. The Speech and Language Therapist works closely with those around the child, the parents and family and the school, so that the condition is properly understood.
Parents do not cause selective mutism.
Selective mutism is not the result of trauma.
We do not know why some children develop selective mutism. We do know that it is best to provide early intervention, rather than 'wait and see'.
The outcomes for a structured approach with a trained and experienced clinician are good.
How to support a child who is selectively mute:
Do not put them under any pressure to talk. Some people think that they will be able to make the person talk. This approach is unhelpful and can make the mutism more entrenched.
Talk to a Speech and Language Therapist who is trained and experienced in treating selective mutism.
For parents: we need to tell children why they find it hard to speak at certain times rather than ask questions they cannot answer. Reassure them that everyone grows up with childhood fears and although they find talking difficult right now, they’ll find it gets easier as they get older. Their fear will go away because they will get used to talking, one tiny step at a time, and meanwhile there are lots of other ways to join in and have fun.
Your child needs approval whether they speak or not, so be positive about their efforts and tell them how brave they are when they try new things. The calmer you are, the more relaxed your child will be and the quicker they’ll improve.
Talk about the situation as a temporary difficulty. "You are finding it difficult at the moment". This gives the message that it can change, with support.
Educate family and friends about the nature of your child’s difficulties.
This should be no different to telling other people that your child has a real fear of water or dogs and expecting them to make allowances.
Explain that when they are worried about talking they can’t get their words out, and that asking questions and putting pressure on just makes it worse. They will be able to speak once they conquer their fears.
Encourage an alternative form of communication when out and about. For example nodding or shaking their head, or pointing to what they want in a cafe or shop.
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) can be an option as a temporary support whilst the child or young person is working on reducing the fear of speaking.
More information and advice is available on the SmiRa website here.