Feb 012012

Selective mutism is a social phobia, common in children who have a predisposition to anxiety in general.

When my son MeMe was 3 years old, he started nursery school. He was speech-delayed, had a history of severe separation anxiety as well as other anxieties, and was bilingual. Bingo, without knowing it, we were the perfect recipe for  selective mutism.

Sensory processing disorder often goes hand-in-hand with selective mutism. As being unable to process information through the senses effectively can cause great anxiety, selective mutism can also appear, as if the child doesn’t have enough trouble!

What is selective mutism? Simply it is the unwillingness of a child to speak or behave naturally in a setting outside his comfort zone, usually his home. It’s more than an “unwillingness,” it’s a blatant refusal brought on by the child’s extreme self-consciousness, shyness, or anxiety.

Back to my son in his nursery class. MeMe’s selective mutism was so severe that he was literally petrified on his classmates (who were mostly a few months younger than him). It started in the second month of school, and since I was expecting my 3rd son any day, the teacher figured she shouldn’t bother me with this little development.

Can you picture a 3 yr old standing rigid in his classroom, with his hands by his face, as if to protect himself for long minutes at a time? How about feeling too shy to go over to the garbage can to throw out his unwanted snack or paper scraps from his arts & crafts project? Or how about needing to get his coat from his cubby because it’s time to go home, but there’s a child standing nearby and the thought of going  around the child is just too scary? Or how about ashamedly wetting his pants because telling the teacher he needs to use the bathroom is too embarrassing because she’ll hear your voice?

That was MeMe in school, and worse. It was heartbreaking.

What did we do? What could we do? First we researched all about selective mutism. Then we put together a plan.

Every morning for a few months, my husband took MeMe into his classroom about 45 minutes before school started (with permission). The goal was to get MeMe to act natural in the classroom with no one around. It didn’t happen right away. MeMe had to get used to walking around the room, using his regular voice, even shouting like he does at home, smiling and being his cheerful self, jumping around, etc. Then he got used to touching with and playing with some of the toys.

While MeMe was there, the teacher and assistants would come in one by one. He would go mute as soon as they came in to the classroom.

Then came phase 2 of the plan. We took home videos of MeMe acting naturally, talking well, being himself. On his next morning session alone in the classroom, MeMe watched the videos of himself. The first few moments of the video playing were crucial, because that’s when MeMe realized that his voice can sound in the classroom and lightning won’t strike.

Then we asked MeMe’s permission for his teacher (his favorite of the 3 he had) who was in the hallway outside, to come in and watch the video of him. He agreed. She watched the video together with him, and this too was a crucial turning point. MeMe had to realize that when people will hear him speak, there will be no reaction from them. We had to show him that nothing bad or embarrassing will happen to him. We had clued in the teacher before and she was very careful not to show surprise at MeMe’s ability to speak and play, or to say anything that could make MeMe self-conscious.

Then we did the same with the other teachers. MeMe again realized that no one paid too much attention to his speaking aloud- and this is the key to unlocking selective mutism. Soon after MeMe started speaking to his teachers, and they knew to respond as if MeMe had been talking from Day 1.

From then on we sent toys from home with MeMe in his backpack, so that when he’d get to school he’d open his bag and have something exciting to show his teachers and talk about. The toys that would force him to talk were the best- an echoing microphone, puppets, etc. His clever teachers soon started including MeMe’s classmates in his little show-and-tell, and soon MeMe was acting himself almost all the time. He was still pretty shy and so we couldn’t yet rest, but no more did I have to worry that he was having bathroom accidents just because he couldn’t ask his teacher permission to go. I didn’t have to worry that MeMe would be stuck in the corner of his classroom too scared to play. Or that I abandoned a small, fearful child in what he considered a lion’s den.

It took MeMe a full two years to grow out of selective mutism completely. For example, he wouldn’t say the names of his classmates, not even at home. When we’d ask him who he sat next to at lunch or at circle time, he’d smile shyly and change the subject. Once we succeeded at getting him comfortable enough to say his friends’ names at home, we tried to get him to say them at school. He didn’t until halfway through kindergarten.

I’m going to do another post about other ways to treat selective mutism, but I wanted to finish off this one by emphasizing some crucial points:

1) When the selectively mute child speaks for the first time, do not react. Any reaction may be equivalent to him as getting struck by lightning, even if you don’t see the big deal!

2) If you want to try and get the child to speak, do not offer him a prize for speaking. Because he won’t speak for the prize (unless his selective mutism isn’t that severe) and then not only does he have the anxiety to deal with, but also he now has to blame himself for not getting that prize he really wanted. Whatever self-esteem he had will be battered, not by you, but by himself. And this battering of his self-esteem can continue and cause damage for years down the line.

3) Asking his classmates’ names is one of the worst questions you can ask a selectively mute child. It is the same as growing, watering, and fertilizing his anxiety. It accomplishes the exact opposite of what you’re working towards.

Until next time… when we’ll have some more good ideas for solving selective mutism.


Anyone have experience with selective mutism? Let us know how you dealt with it! What was the outcome?



2 comments on “Selective Mutism and Sensory Processing Disorder

  1. Thomas on said:

    Selective Mutism is not an unwillingness to speak, an act of defiance, or bad behavior. It is a physical, psychological, and emotional response to extreme anxiety. The sufferers wish that they could speak, but they are physically unable to.

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