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.

Want to know more?

What is iSpeak and who runs it?

iSpeak is a voluntary organization dedicated to providing information and support for adults and teenagers with SM, and their parents. It is run by a team of volunteers, several of whom experienced SM throughout their childhood and into adulthood. Our aim is to provide a candid first-hand perspective of this condition. Feel free to contact us for further information.

 A new book by iSpeak on Selective Mutism is out soon

Written by children and adults with personal experience of Selective Mutism, and in their own words, our new book - Selective Mutism In Our Own Words (Experiences in Childhood and Adulthood) - published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers - will be out on December 21st 2015 in paperback (£14.99) with a Kindle edition to follow after.
Read about Selective Mutism in the words of people who have experienced it

 Latest tweets by iSpeak

Follow us on Twitter via @selmutism


A poem for Selective Mutism awareness month

“I have a phobia of talking”

Finding your voice

Videos and further reading