Selective Mutism is a type of severe anxiety disorder that causes sufferers to be unable to speak in certain situations, despite their often being fully capable of speaking in others. It can affect both children and adults, but the condition generally starts in early childhood, between 2.7 and 4.1 years of age.
Selective Mutism is essentially a phobia of talking in the presence of a specific group of people or an individual person. This means that it can occur in response to a general setting, such as school, or around one person in particular, such as a relative.
This inability to speak is an instinctual response, and usually feels inexplicable to the sufferer. It’s important to remember that children and adults with Selective Mutism aren’t choosing to stay silent, they genuinely are unable to speak because it causes them too much anxiety. This anxiety triggers a ‘freeze’ response, making talking impossible. Those with Selective Mutism aren’t in control of this reaction and find it extremely distressing.
Is Selective Mutism Common?
Current estimates suggest that selective mutism affects one in 150 children in the UK. This number decreases in adolescence, with one in 1000 people suffering, and then decreases further in young adults, with one in 2400 affected by the disorder. The proportion of older adults with the condition is unknown, as it often fails to be diagnosed.
Diagnosing Selective Mutism
Selective mutism is often misinterpreted as shyness, but psychologically, the two things are very different. Shy people, children included, are generally slow to warm to people, but will, eventually, take part in conversations. Those with Selective Mutism will display a consistent and predictable pattern, whereby they find it impossible to talk to the same people, or in the same places.
As previously mentioned, Selective Mutism usually starts in early childhood, and is often first noticed when a child starts to interact with people outside their own family, such as when they start nursery or school.
The disorder is diagnosed according to specific guidelines, including, but not limited to whether the sufferer:
· Doesn’t speak in specific situations, such as in school or in public
· Speaks normally in situations where they feel comfortable
· Has been unable to speak in specific situations for at least a month
Over time, people with Selective Mutism will learn which people and places provoke the freeze response, and will do everything they can do avoid these situations. As a result, Selective Mutism can contribute to a child refusing to attend school and subsequent academic underachievement. If left untreated, it can lead to low self-esteem and social anxiety disorder.
Treating Selective Mutism
When handled appropriately, most children are able to overcome selective mutism. However, the ease with which it can be treated depends on it being diagnosed at an early age. If you recognise some of the patterns mentioned above, and suspect that your child has Selective Mutism, don’t accept the assurance that they will grow out of it. Get in touch with us here at London Speech Therapy using the form below, or give us a call on 020 3475 2189, and we’ll be happy to arrange an assessment.