It’s a very unhelpful name, selective mutism I think. If we were in the middle of a game of word association it might be followed by ‘choice’, ‘choose’, ‘select’. I can understand how it can so easily be misunderstood as ‘shyness’, ‘manipulative’, ‘oppositional behaviour’, ‘stubbornness’. We hear the phrase and immediately jump to the misunderstanding that the child is selecting when to speak and when not to. It’s more accurate to understand it as the mutism is selective, not the child. It gets it’s name from the way that the mutism is only seen in certain contexts and not in others not because it is implying choice.
The most helpful way I’ve found of thinking of selective mutism is to focus on the physiological. It is known that in moments of extreme anxiety or panic the body’s fight/flight/freeze mode affects us physically. Our body’s hormone balances for example are completely upturned, in order to get ready to run or fight. One of the physical affects can be the seizing up of the muscles needed for speech – including the vocal chords. So in that situation of panic speech is simply not physically possible. And that is selective mutism. An outworking of extreme anxiety. For some this anxiety is seen in group contexts (even of familiar people); for others with strangers; for others it is in particular places; for some when under the pressure of a direct question; or simply in front of others. It stems from social anxiety, social phobia and anxiety about demands. Responding to selective mutism as if it is ‘stubbornness’ or ‘manipulative behaviour’, or ‘a shy phase’ ignores and adds to the anxiety.
Selective mutism can affect autistics as well as others. And it can make life very challenging, and scary – imagine needing something and being completely unable to ask for help and get support. It makes being in new situations and places especially difficult when you know you cannot stop and ask for directions or check something with the teacher or your classmates. It can make learning hard work when you are unable to ask for help or clarification. It can make friendships and social times, like lunch breaks, really challenging.
There is really helpful advice and explanations at SMIRA.
I especially like way the article ends:
Celebrate your child’s unique qualities
We cannot change the personality of SM children – and wouldn’t want to! They are naturally sensitive individuals who take life seriously and set themselves impossibly high standards. The downside is a tendency to be overwhelmed by novelty, change and criticism; the upside is an empathetic, loyal and conscientious nature.
How to support?
- be kind – patience not pressure
- surprises add to anxiety
- give more time than you think for an answer
- praise achievements
- disappointment and disapproval are definitely not wanted
- support the anxiety
- help find safe ways and places to calm and regulate
- enable coping strategies for anxiety
- remember it is selective but not selected
It is not easy to truly understand or appreciate another person’s experience of anxiety – we all get worried about things from time to time, and it’s all to easy to assume other’s worries feel and affect them the same way that ours affect us. Our expectations are too often shaped by our own experiences. But to be able to support we need to put those expectations to one side and take on board the extreme level of anxiety being experienced by someone with selective mutism. It is not a choice. It will not be easily and quickly ‘got over’ or ‘snapped out of’. It is quite paralyzing. And can be so very isolating.