Selective Mutism

  • By: The DIG for Kids
  • Time to read: 3 min.
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Selective Mutism occurs when children who are otherwise able to speak and understand language are unable to speak in specific social settings. For example, a selectively mute child may speak at home but be unable to speak at nursery or school. It is believed that Selective Mutism is related to anxiety, in particular specific phobias, but it remains accepted that selectively mute children are actually afraid of speaking and the social interactions that are necessitated by speaking with others. Selective Mutism usually begins in children under 5 years of age, though it may only become noticeable when a child begins school. Seeking a diagnosis of and treatment for Selective Mutism as soon as it is observed is important before it becomes a “habit” that a child can’t – or won’t – break.

Signs and Symptoms of Selective Mutism

Children with Selective Mutism are unable to speak in specific social settings. These children are often able to verbalise as appropriate for their age in settings in which they are comfortable, such as in family homes, but lose the ability to do so in other, usually public, settings. Very often Selective Mutism can be highly frustrating and embarrassing for a child, only adding to his/her public discomfort.

Diagnosis of Selective Mutism

Selective Mutism can only be formally diagnosed by a qualified child mental health professional. Selective Mutism must be diagnosed according to specific guidelines, including that the child does not speak in specific settings, that the child can speak normally in alternate settings, that the child’s inability to speak interferes with the child’s ability to function in the setting, that the child’s inability to speak has lasted for at least six months and that the child’s inability to speak is not related to another behavioural, mental or communication disorder.

Treatment for Selective Mutism

Selective Mutism should be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. Treatment for Selective Mutism focuses on lowering the anxiety that the child has for speaking in a particular setting. Treatment does not focus on the speaking itself, nor should anyone’s attention. Instead, behavioural therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and play therapy will often be used in treatment plans and medication may be used also. In some cases family therapy may be recommended as well.

Living with Selective Mutism

Relatives and friends of children diagnosed with Selective Mutism can have a major impact on the success of treatment for this disorder. Providing love, support and patience, offering verbal and emotional encouragement, serving a healthy diet and engaging in regular exercise are all things that others can do to support children with Selective Mutism. At no time should a child suffering from Selective Mutism be expected or prompted to talk, and instead attention should be focused on making the child feel comfortable and confident in social settings.

Selective Mutism is a disorder in which children are cable of speaking appropriately for their age, but are unable to do so in specific settings. Selective Mutism is often closely related to anxiety and specific phobias, and treatment of Selective Mutism addresses these concerns rather than the child’s actual speech and speaking patterns. Parents interested in learning more about Selective Mutism should speak with a GP or professional child mental health professional.

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