Mutism is a communication disorder in which a person chooses not to speak in uncomfortable situations. This disorder occurs in varying degrees and is much more common in children than adults. It can also easily be misdiagnosed, or written off as simple shyness. Individuals with mutism, however, should undergo treatment for the disorder, and possibly any underlying disorders.
Although some adults suffer from this disorder, the majority of the people who have mutism are children. Those suffering from this disorder are able to speak, they simply don't. This muteness typically only occurs in certain situations.
Usually, individuals with mutism will speak freely in places and situations where they feel comfortable. In other situations where they are expected to speak, however, they will fall silent. This is usually a social situation, or a situation where other people are around. In children, this disorder is typically most prevalent while they are in school.
Some children with mutism will talk to some people and not others. On the other hand, some will not talk to anyone. A child with this disorder may talk only to friends or peers, while another child will only talk to teachers and other adults. In school, these children may or may not participate in class activities.
Children with mutism who do not participate in class or speak to adults may suffer in the long run. If this disorder goes undiagnosed for too long, it can damage a student's academic performance. When it lasts into adulthood, it could affect a person's relationships and employment.
Besides muteness, a few other features define this disorder. An individual with mutism may rarely smile, especially in social situations, and he may avoid eye contact with others. These individuals also tend to worry about every little thing, and they usually find it hard to express their feelings. They may also be very uncomfortable in busy places and try to avoid large groups of people.
The causes of mutism are not fully understood. Some doctors believe this is a type of anxiety disorder, while others believe these children stay quiet because of underlying speech disorders. Certain speaking disorders, such as a stutter, can cause embarrassment when a child talks, resulting in him not talking at all. Some research suggests, however, that individuals suffering from this disorder may have an overactive amygdala, which is the portion of the brain that controls the fight-or-flight reaction. Overactivity in this area will cause a person to perceive a threat, which can lead to him not speaking in intimidating situations.
This is a very easy disorder to misdiagnose. Because it does have similar symptoms to some autism spectrum disorders, doctors may diagnose a mute child with an autism or label him as shy. Unlike shyness, individuals with mutism will not simply outgrow this disorder. Early treatment is recommended to prevent this from causing more serious problems down the road.
Children with this disorder should never be forced to speak, which can only make the situation worse. Instead, they should be encouraged to speak. Desensitization and stimulus fading are two other treatment methods. Stimulus fading involves putting a child in a room with a person with whom he is comfortable and slowly bringing other people into the room.