Challenging myths and stereotypes

As probably the least understood / least researched / most misunderstood anxiety disorder of all, there are many myths and stereotypes surrounding Selective Mutism.

Myth / stereotype 1: Selective Mutism only affects young children

While SM ordinarily begins in young childhood it can persist, in much the same form, through adolescence into adulthood. SM often does not just disappear when a child reaches 18. My own research estimates there to be around 1 in 2400 young adults with SM and an unknown number of older adults - the vast majority of whom receive no support at all. There is a profound gap in mental health services for this condition - for not only adolescents with SM but adults too - not least because the severity of this condition is underestimated. One should remember that while SM in young children may seem to be quite innocuous and low-impact, Selective Mutism can develop into / contribute to serious psychiatric problems in teenage and adult life. Selective Mutism is best and most easily tackled when a child is young.

Myth / stereotype 2: Seletive Mutism only occurs in school settings

This is incorrect as the majority of children with SM are also mute with extended relatives or strangers. In some cases, children and adults can also be mute with people they know well, including their parents.

Myth / stereotype 3: Selective Mutism is always caused by childhood mistreatment

There are many reasons for this anxiety disorder becoming embedded in a young person's life - including no reason whatsoever. The majority of parents who have children with SM are lovely people, who are as flummoxed by their child developing SM as everyone else. Many children with SM seem to be predisposed to developing anxiety. Many young people (males and females alike) also have sensory-processing issues, autism, and / or hearing or speech problems as well as SM. On the other hand many young people simply have SM on its own. Including my own research there is no evidence to suggest that children (or adults) with SM are more likely to have experienced mistreatment in childhood. As a statistical population (just as with a population of children with blonde hair or green eyes) it is suggested that children with SM are simply equally likely to have experienced mistreatment.

Myth / stereotype 4: People with Selective Mutism can't be mute everywhere all the time

Selective Mutism is a poor name for this condition. It should, perhaps, be called Situational Mutism rather than Selective Mutism. In fact all situations can eventually become triggers. Children and adults with SM don't wilfully 'select' those they are mute with. They have instinctual speech 'rules' about who can and cannot be spoken to that can last for years or even decades. The 'rules' sometimes have a tendency to spread, however, and some young adults with SM may eventually become mute in all situations because their system of 'rules' has, progressively, become so entrapping that they cannot face speaking anywhere or to anyone. In my own experience I had five different types of speech rule (which may well be recognisable by every sufferer of this condition): With certain people I was compelled (it was my instinct) to be mute every single time I encountered them; Those who had never heard me speak would never hear me speak, even if I had known them for years; With a few exceptions, anyone related or associated with anyone who I could not speak to could not be spoken to either; Those who did not know I was mute in other situations could never be allowed to find out about my muteness; and Those who only knew me as mute could not discover I could speak in other situations. Above all, one should realize that SM is far from simple and far from easy to escape. It can become a hellish trap!

Myth / stereotype 5: Selective Mutism is innocuous and never hurt anyone

One might get the impression - visiting parents' organizations for SM, and reading abundant literature on SM in young children - that SM is innocuous, unharmful and does not damage life opportunities. In fact by teenage and adult years, people with SM experience depression and other anxiety disorders such as social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia and generalized anxiety disorder. In my own experience, in my 20s I experienced a 'nervous breakdown' as a direct result of SM and was an emergency psychiatric patient. I think such stories should be told also. My life story is contained in our new book: Selective Mutism In Our Own Words - along with the life experiences and thoughts of many other young people and adults with Selective Mutism. Additionally Sabrina tells her story in the BBC documentary I have a phobia of talking. Not only can SM become egregiously damaging (though it needn't be if it is treated early enough in life) many adults with SM would say that SM is the worst of their experience, despite suffering from other conditions also (most of which could have been averted with early support for SM.)

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