What is Selective Mutism?

Harriette Halepis

Selective mutism is a rare disorder that primarily affects children. Those who are diagnosed with this disorder do not speak in certain situations or in front of certain people, though they may speak freely and normally in other situations. In ever manner, this type of disorder is baffling to both those coping with it, and to those professionals attempting to diagnose it.

A young child with selective mutism may communicate with a sibling but is unable to speak to others.
A young child with selective mutism may communicate with a sibling but is unable to speak to others.

Frequently, selective mutism is misdiagnosed as autism spectrum disorder. This type of misdiagnosis occurs when a child battling selective mutism refuses to speak in front of a therapist. While autistic children may not speak in certain situations, there are noticeable differences between the two illnesses. Autistic children tend to flap their hands and avoid eye contact, while children dealing with selective mutism simply do not speak.

The exact cause of this disorder is not known, though many psychological experts believe that children faced with this illness are prone to anxiety. A small percentage of children who are diagnosed with selective mutism have Sensory Integration Dysfunction. This is a type of brain dysfunction that prevents a child from understanding and accepting certain sensory details. In turn, this inability to process information causes panic, which results in speech inability.

Other children that have been diagnosed with selective mutism may not have Sensory Integration Dysfunction, though they may remain mute in certain situations due to language anxiety. Commonly, children who grew up speaking another language, children who come from foreign countries, and children who were taught a foreign language at a young age may feel pressured to speak the language that other children are speaking. This pressure causes immense stress, which leads to speech problems.

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In the past, there has been some speculation that this form of childhood mutism may be a result of an abusive environment. However, there is no scientific evidence to support this type of claim. The main difference between children who have experienced a traumatic event and children that are coping with selective mutism is that abused children do not speak at all under any circumstances.

It is important that children suffering from this form of mutism seek psychological treatment right away. This is not a disorder that will go away with age, and it is not a disorder that should be ignored. Treatment largely depends on the subject, though psychological counseling is almost always a large part of helping a child to speak in all situations once again.

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