Selective mutism is a complex, severe anxiety condition in which an individual has difficulty speaking in public/social settings such as school, work, and public places, or even to certain friends or family members. However, these individuals are able to speak in settings where they feel comfortable and relaxed, and may even be considered a “chatterbox.”
Selective mutism can remarkably interfere with performance at school, work, and engagement with friends. Less than 1% of the population have selective mutism, nevertheless, it is still important to recognize the condition and how it affects those who have it.
As a community, we can shine a light on this condition to reduce the number of people who feel ostracized due to living with this condition.
There are varying ways people with selective mutism are discriminated against at school as well as the stigma around this condition, ways professionals (such as teachers) can make this condition worse. Further, other disorders can manifest themselves through selective mutism, but accommodations can help individuals with selective mutism to participate more and feel more accepted in various social settings.
Discrimination and Stigma
I have been faced with many types of discrimination and ostracism from school, professionals, and peers, due to a lack of knowledge of and willingness on their side to learn about selective mutism.
Selective Mutism doesn’t only affect talking; in fact, it affects many other forms of communication, as well. I often appear stiff, with a lack of facial expressions, which is one of the common manifestations of selective mutism, especially in anxiety-inducing environments.
Selective mutism (SM) is different from other anxiety disorders, in that it has a more noticeable and debilitating impact on the individual and can really hinder their ability to perform in most environments, even when it has a detrimental effect on them.
Imagine not being able to express a need or as questions when you need clarification because others expect you to verbally respond.
Educators Can Fail to Support Selectively Mute Individuals
For example, people with selective mutism can spend years without talking at school or even with people they trust. This can further take an emotional toll on these individuals who spend years in silence with no support or understanding from anyone, devastating their self-confidence and well-being and destroying the trust that future educators will meet their needs.
I really wish that all communication was accepted and that different organizations, especially schools, colleges, and universities, were more accepting of this relatively rare condition. We SM individuals know that a sense of community can make a huge difference in our lives and in those around us.
Furthermore, because of a lack of education about selective mutism, many people, including professionals, can further make this condition worse by treating speech (or lack thereof) as a behavior condition, as if individuals choose not to speak. This increases anxiety about speaking, which in turn makes it harder to speak.
It is crucial for individuals, such as parents and teachers, to further educate themselves and understand the physical, psychological, and behavioral manifestations of selective mutism.
The best way to do this is to learn from people who experience SM. Just knowing that others understand and empathize can truly help individuals with this condition feel welcomed, instead of feeling belittled and excluded.
Research in Selective Mutism Is Lacking and Misformed
Due to the fact that selective mutism is such a rare condition, much of the research is based on subjective findings and can be quite misleading. The result is that many professionals view selective mutism from a misinformed perspective.
Inappropriate ideas about SM leave those affected with the responsibility of educating those around them, which is especially difficult when communicating with words can be so difficult–or impossible.
Many teachers often fail to recognize that selective mutism doesn’t only affect being able to speak, and further get frustrated when their student with SM isn’t responding to them.
People with SM are very sensitive and hyper-vigilant individuals and take in the environment around them as something frightening. They can often freeze up in situations, even where any type of communication is required– even in text.
Many people with SM find themselves unable to send emails to their teachers, therapists, or someone of authority because that is an expectation of them to communicate, which can bring severe anxiety to these individuals. If someone like me, who struggles with SM is unable to respond to you, we aren’t ignoring you, we are just overstimulated and our brain and body shuts down our ability to communicate.
We need a supportive environment, where teachers and staff talk to us as equals and treat us with care and compassion instead of enforcing normative expectations on people with SM.
Like all people, we really value having a supportive relationship with others and need that to thrive. All communication matters, even if we are unable to express anything with words at the time. Our silence is clearly expressing that we are uncomfortable or overwhelmed and need to feel safer before we have access to words.
I believe that simple knowledge of this condition can make a huge difference in schools, universities, and other communities across the world, who may come across someone with selective mutism.
Ending the Stigma
Ultimately, there are many easy ways for people in the community to help end the stigma towards people with selective mutism. This condition comes with an uneasy feeling of loneliness and isolation, although it doesn’t have to be that way if more people in society took the time to educate themselves about SM.
It is important to be patient when talking to somebody with selective mutism, as it may be strenuous for one to communicate with new people in social situations. Allowing for hesitation is also important, as well as re-asking questions or giving people space to respond later. Just knowing that others value their input enough to wait will reduce anxiety about speaking.
In a school setting, teachers should not force individuals with selective mutism to speak if they are not feeling comfortable doing so. Non-verbal communication is always a great way for students to participate in class, while also feeling comfortable. Students can usually offer a thumbs up, a head nod, or even a smile to let educators know they’re following.
Additionally, outside support can be highly beneficial (depending on how a person is affected by selective mutism). Having a therapist or another person who is trained in selective mutism treatment strategies can provide individualized support for the student.
Selective Mutism Is More Than Periodic Silence
Selective mutism is more than just a fear of speaking, as most professionals falsely believe. It is a paralyzing feeling that makes you unable to speak, communicate, or even move in many situations, even sometimes when the person feels comfortable in a situation.
While selective mutism is rare, it is not uncommon for neurodivergent people, especially those on the autism spectrum.
Nobody should ever feel rejected or unwelcomed from society. Let’s try to eliminate the stigma around selective mutism, and shine some light on the different ways that we, as a society, can help and welcome everybody, regardless of their differences.
Just because somebody can’t speak, doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice.
Shipon-Blum, Elisa. (2020, August 13). What Is Selective Mutism. Retrieved October 04, 2020, from https://selectivemutismcenter.org/whatisselectivemutism
Strategies for the Classroom. (2020, July 29). Retrieved October 04, 2020, from https://childmind.org/guide/teachers-guide-to-selective-mutism/sm-strategies-for-classroom/
About The Authors:
Bekki Semenova is a 17-year-old from Vaughan, Canada, who is very passionate about spreading awareness and encouraging the selective mutism community to fight through their struggles and to self-advocate, as she herself knows how it feels from her own experience of living with selective mutism.
She has connected with many people and organizations around the world who specialize in this area and believes that her own experiences with selective mutism can help others with similar struggles get the help and recognition they deserve and need.
She believes in changing the world for her SM community! Even though there is not enough knowledge about selective mutism in society, she believes that being open about her own life with it can help others with SM and those supporting the SM community, in the long term.
Let’s shine a light on selective mutism!
Ellie Rebarbar is currently a grade 11 student who enjoys learning and researching about different health conditions, as well as bringing awareness to those that do not have enough recognition. Bekki Semenova reached out to Ellie Rebarbar to introduce the condition of selective mutism to her.
Ever since, Ellie has learned so much from Bekki, even though she does not have SM, she would love to help shine a light on this complex condition and be an ally to set an example and help build a community of acceptance for selective mutism.
- Our Journey with Selective Mutism – Bekki Semenova and Stella - November 24, 2020
- Selective Mutism – Just because somebody can’t speak, doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice - November 4, 2020
- Autism Pride Day June 18th - June 21, 2020
Thank you to the young women who wrote about selective mutism. Having taught some 35+ years, I only had a selective mute student once. She was a wonderful girl and one day quietly informed me that it was her birthday. I’ve never forgotten that because they were the only words she spoke all year long.
Thank you so much for your comment, Rita! That’s so amazing that she has made a positive impact on you!! It is great that you’re taking the time to learn more about this important condition!
~ Bekki Semenova
The word “selective” is very misleading. Merriam-Webster gives the synonyms: choosy (or choosey), particular, picky. Every NT I’ve ever discussed it with thinks “selective” means we choose to speak or not, resulting in even more explaining. There must be some other, clearer, adjective that could be used without making our lives even more difficult the moment it’s used.
Hello! Thank you for your comment! I agree, the SM community suggested that “situational” mutism would be a better explanation of the condition – not selecting to speak, but being physically unable to in certain situations, even in those that can be comfortable to us.
May I ask, are you diagnosed with Selective Mutism? I must add, SM is a separate diagnosis from Autism, but I do happen to have both 🙂 Is this the case for you too?
Thank you so much and looking forward to your response!
~ Bekki Semenova
Great article: thank you for writing it.
I had what appears to be selective mutism when I was very young, following the birth of my younger sister (I am the third of four girls). I had a very broad vocabulary for a 19-month old, but over the following six months apparently lost pretty much all of my speech. At the same time, whenever my mum (breast)fed my sister I would go and stand in the corner of the room, facing the wall, and was (according to my mum) inconsolable. However, mum says she wasn’t overly concerned by my lost speech: she said that every child was different, and I got my needs met (apparently my two older sisters were very good at knowing what I wanted).
I also had a fair number of ear infections, and was eventually taken to a speech and language therapy clinic aged 4, to check if there was a hearing problem that could explain my lack of speech, but the S&L therapist could find nothing obviously wrong. A few months later (days after my fifth birthday) I started primary school – and started speaking. At the first parents evening, it turned out my class teacher assumed I had spent the preceding 18 months at nursery – I hadn’t – as my vocabulary was so good.
What particularly struck me in your article was the reference to some individuals with SM becoming chatterboxes: this became my nickname at school (to the point that, when selling me raffle tickets for the school summer fete, another teacher wrote ‘Chatterbox’ on the back of the tickets, instead of my given name).
I am still overly talkative – and this was one reason I thought I couldn’t possibly be autistic: but more recent understanding of the condition indicates being over-talkative as one form of ‘weak central coherence*’, and can be classed under the diagnostic criterion of non-verbal communication. (*the over-talkativity can manifest as providing extraneous information, not getting to the point and repeatedly going off on a tangent).
Did I have selective mutism? I don’t know. But I suspect the answer was yes – it just didn’t manifest in the stereotypical way presented in the media. For the record, I am diagnosed with adult ADHD, have a daughter diagnosed with autism and am awaiting my own assessment for the same. I am also (have always been) hyper-vigilant.
As to now? There have been a small handful of incidences in these last few years when I have been so extraordinarily stressed / overwhelmed that I have been unable to speak when spoken to. I go to answer – and I simply can’t find the words. I open my mouth, attempt to speak – and nothing comes out, save for the odd initial stutter or gutteral sound. It has been hugely distressing, and I am rooted to the spot. Do you think this could also be SM?
Meanwhile, please keep writing. It is such an important topic to get out there. With very best wishes to you.
what an excellent and informative message of support, encouragement and challenge!
Thank you so much!! it really means a lot!
~ Bekki Semenova
It is a massively evidenced fact, that the system of authoritarian school never merits trusting to meet anyone’s needs.
I think this was so well written. Many good explanations of SM. I just know this had to be so helpful in so many ways.
Hi! I’m an ND SLP. What are your thoughts on using an AAC device for SM? There is some controversy amongst SLPs about this. My intuition says to provide it (AAC) while also referring the individual for counseling to work on the anxiety. If the anxiety piece never gets resolved for whatever reason (e.g., there are so many barriers to mental health support), I would think that AAC should always be accessible. Is this right?