What is Selective Mutism (SM)?
Selective Mutism (SM) is a severe situational anxiety disorder which affects both children and adults. The condition generally starts in early childhood but can, if not treated early enough, continue into adulthood. Children and adults with SM are often fully capable of speaking (though many have masked speech problems / delays), but cannot speak in certain situations because they are phobic of initiating speech.
As a phobia of communication, a child or adult with SM will be mute (it is an instinctual response which can feel inexplicable even to himself / herself) in the presence of a given collection of people or indeed an individual person. The pattern of speech-related anxiety varies depending upon the person's life-experience. The pattern can be quite general - encompassing the whole school environment. Or it can be more specific - for instance with a grandparent, parent or step-parent. As such, role can, sometimes, be involved. Or it can be a complex mixture of both.
The mean age of onset of Selective Mutism is between 2.7 and 4.1 years of age, which is long before the mean age of onset of Social Anxiety Disorder, which generally develops during adolescence. SM often first becomes apparent when a child enters a communal environment outside the family home for the first time - for instance when a child begins playgroup or school. While SM has a very early mean age of onset, sometimes SM (either absolute silence or extreme reticence) can last for a child’s entire time at school - until the day they leave at 16 or 18. Generally, but not always, it contributes to academic underachievement, school refusal, and a torrid school life, etc. despite children with SM often being of 'above-average intelligence'.
School is not the only situation in which muteness can occur, however. SM being an education-only issue is a stereotype, thus incorrect. Many children (including those primarily mute at school) may also not be able to talk to certain relatives (e.g. grandparents or aunties or uncles etc.) In rarer cases, some children with SM may not be able to talk to their parents or step-parents either. This was the case for me.
Children and adults with SM do not choose to be silent in the situations in which they cannot speak. They genuinely cannot speak because attempting speech rouses too much anxiety. Almost all children and adults with Selective Mutism would love to be able to speak in every situation they cannot. They are not making their difficulties up, being difficult, rude, antisocial, or anything else.
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Read about Selective Mutism in the words of people who have experienced it
I often feel that I could no more use my vocal cords to break a silence, to get somebody’s attention or to initiate an interaction than I could run through fire or do something dangerous to my life.
Selective Mutism is like having your voice trapped inside your own mind. It’s feeling as if your throat is physically locked when you’re put in a position in which you are expected to speak and want to speak, but can’t. It’s feeling alone, because you’re ‘that kid who doesn’t talk’ and most people have never encountered anyone like you before, and they don’t understand why you can’t speak. It’s not being able to explain why you don’t talk, because even if you were able to speak to answer them, you don’t fully understand it yourself.
Selective Mutism is commonly defined as the “failure to speak in certain social situations.” However, to me, it is so much more than that. On the surface, it appears as though the sufferer is choosing when and where to speak, however the truth is that rather than being deliberately silent in certain situations, it feels as though you physically can’t talk, like the words will not come out.