Symptoms of Selective Mutism

Selective Mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder in which a child can speak perfectly fluently in certain comfortable and familiar settings, but suffers debilitating anxiety in other situations that renders them unable to speak.  SM does not discriminate – children of all classes, races, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds may develop this severe anxiety disorder. Many times, it is misidentified as a speech/language disorder or a developmental disability as the discovery of a child’s inability to speak is often noticed when a child begins to be verbal around 3 to 4 years of age; as such, many school-aged children are placed in special education classes because they are unable to verbalize their knowledge by reading aloud or participating in class. For this reason, the actual occurrence of SM is most likely more frequent than what statistics report. SM is a serious condition, as common as autism, but most people are unaware it exists. Unfortunately, children suffering from SM do not “grow out” of the disorder as a shy child grows out of shyness as they get older. 

Characteristics of SM

  • Inability to speak in one or more social settings even though the child may speak elsewhere.

  • The inability to speak interferes with educational, social communication and other achievements.

  • The inability to speak lasts more than one month, excluding the first month of school.

  • The inability to speak is not due to the lack of knowledge of, or comfort with, the spoken language.

  • The speech deficiency is not caused by a communication disorder (i.e., stuttering) and does not occur exclusively as a result of a pervasive development disorder.

  • The main trait of SM is that the child can both comprehend and speak but fails to do so in certain circumstances.

What we know SM is NOT

  • The reason children do not speak cannot be explained by a lack of knowledge or physical ability to do so.

  • It does not manifest in a child because he/she is traumatized.

  • SM is not a case of shyness or introversion, even though it is often mischaracterized and misunderstood by most. Children who are shy eventually become accustomed to their environments and speak, but children with SM fall deeper into the habit of not talking and cannot become verbal.

  • It is not a case of a child choosing not to speak – the child cannot speak because of severe anxiety.

  • Research indicates that a common misconception about children with SM is that they are defiant or stubborn; in fact, children with SM have a lower incidence of oppositional behavior than their peers in a school setting. 

  • SM is not autism.  SM differs from autism in that the child with autism carries impairments in social communication and relatedness across all settings, whereas the child with SM shows inconsistencies in settings and across people. 

  • Has your child not spoken in school or in a particular public setting for at least one month or longer?

  • Does your child worry excessively about being called on in school?

  • Does your child have difficulty smiling or looking at the camera for school photos?

  • Does your child avoid participating in age-appropriate social activities (i.e., birthday parties, play dates, sports)?

  • Does your child avoid eye contact, look down, or look away to avoid social interaction?

  • Does your child appear anxious or fearful when engaging with peers?

  • Does your child appear stuck, frozen, or apprehensive when expected to participate in social or public activities?

  • When your child is expected to speak do they avoid by physically hiding or look to you to provide the answer?

  • Does your child appear outgoing and playful at home but appears fearful and withdrawn at school, in public places, and/or around specific people (i.e., peers & adults)?

  • Does your child appear disinterested in social activities but later tells you they loved the activity and would like to do it again?

  • Does your child experience physical symptoms (i.e., headaches or stomach aches) when attending school, participating in extracurricular activities, or when out in public places?

  • Does your child demonstrate high academic achievement at home but his/her teacher reports he/she does not demonstrate mastery of the materials in the classroom (i.e., your child sings their ABCs at home but not during circle time)?

  • Does your child speak at home in a normal voice but does not verbalize in public? Does your child speak in an audible voice at home, but whispers at school, in public places, and/or around specific people (i.e., peers & adults)?

  • Does the anxiety your child experiences interfere with your child’s daily life?

Some Common Signs of Selective Mutism

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