How to be selectively mute

An explanation for therapists who intend to work with selectively mute children, adolescents, and adults

Note: In the explanation below, when I say 'rule' I generally mean a psychological rule generated by one or more flavours of anxiety.

There are 5 different types of speech anxiety 'rule' in SM which operate as follows. From an experiencer’s point of view:

1. The proximity of certain others ‘renders me mute’
2. Every single time I encounter the same individuals I will be 'rendered mute' again
3. Every individual associated with / related to an individual I am mute with I will also be mute with
4. I will hide my muteness from individuals I can speak to who are unaware of it
5. I will hide my speech from individuals who identify me as mute

Note that:
1. is instinctive
2. is what makes SM so enduring (as will be explained)
3., 4., & 5. are based on avoiding challenge

The rules exist for different reasons:
1. Fear of being heard / seen / overly perceived / appraised / overwhelmed / embarrassed
2. Anticipatory anxiety / avoidance / feeling ‘safer' silent, despite feeling ashamed of being so / self-concept as a silent person / sound-of-voice fears ...
3., 4. & 5. Avoidance of mutism being challenged by others - extrapolated to everyone who could potentially do so

So, SM is a primitive fear which wraps round on itself, traps the child / adult into muteness (amongst other things), and around that core ‘trap’ is constructed a complex and seemingly impenetrable system of anxieties. However, SM can be resolved (in younger children more easily) by focusing on 2. primarily. 3., 4., & 5. will resolve themselves if 2. is successfully worked on.

A fear of being heard can be overcome in two principal ways: by increasing volume (shaping) or the hearer reducing distance while volume is maintained (Sliding In.) This is just as relevant to young adults as children. It is thus possible to avert mental health issues that may follow for a child with SM by adolescence and adulthood: depression, which is almost universal, and all manner of other anxiety disorders which are very significantly more likely in adults with SM – e.g. social anxiety disorder (SAD), generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), agoraphobia, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Treating SM early on is vital to avoid mental health issues which are bound to follow - for a subset of children - otherwise. Thus if you are or will be working therapeutically with a child - as a speech therapist, psychologist, or teacher - you are, potentially, saving a child many years of needless suffering. For more information see Selective Mutism in our own words (by Carl Sutton & Cheryl Forrester) and our research.

Also see

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