Sunday, 26 September 2010

Selective Mutism

There will be some children who started school in September who aren't saying anything in school. Its always very difficult for a class teacher to know if its just shyness an underlying receptive language difficulty, an expressive language disorder or whether it could be selective mutism. 

Selective Mutism occurs when children who can speak and understand language perfectly normally at home are unable to speak elsewhere e.g. school or nursery. Unusually, there are many more girls who have selective mutism. It's also apparent that when boys display this condition they often have other social interaction or learning problems as well.

Selective Mutism used to be known as elective mutism, as people including professionals believed that children were choosing not to speak, and were therefore thought to be challenging and manipulative. The term Selective Mutism reflects current understanding that the children’s silence is not something they can control. It can be seen as a type of extreme social anxiety or phobia.

Michael Jones, specialist speech and language therapist has done a lot of work on this subject. This is an extract from his excellent article featured on his website.

How does selective mutism (SM) develop?

Michael says that 'SM can begin as shyness, but for various reasons children become progressively unable to speak in public, and especially at pre-school or in school. No single cause has been identified, though emotional, psychological and social factors may play a strong part. In some cases trauma can be an important factor, perhaps in school or hospital. Some children with SM are also anxious about new or unfamiliar situations and activities, and may be overly worried about taking risks.

Children may have other behaviours, such as limited eye contact and facial expression, physical rigidity, nervous fidgeting and withdrawal. SM often develops as children get older. It may not always improve spontaneously, and in some cases can become an intractable condition that severely limits young people’s life chances.

How can children be helped?

Early identification and appropriate support is of vital importance. If a child is not speaking at pre-school or school after a period of ‘settling in’ then a Speech and Language Therapist should be consulted. The most important form of help is to establish good links between home, school and any professionals who are involved. Maggie Johnson and Alison Wintgens, two Speech and Language Therapists, have produced a practical and comprehensive book about SM. ‘The Selective Mutism Resource Manual’ offers practical and effective strategies for helping children and young people with anxiety about talking in public. Their approach to developing confident speaking is a comprehensive guide to research and literature about SM, as well as offering effective advice to parents and professionals.

Maggie and Alison identify two very important ideas: that children with SM do want to talk, but need help to become confident speakers; children need a step-by-step approach that involves the family and school working closely together'. read more at

The Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMIRA) support families and schools by providing information and advice. Their DVD ‘Silent Children: Approaches to Selective Mutism’ is an excellent introduction to SM and to effective strategies.

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  1. Its hard to know what to do when a child doesnt talk so thanks for that!

  2. Thanks for writing this my son was not recognized with this condition and I think things would have been a lot easier with a earlier diagnosis

  3. Thank you for your comment. I think its good that we 're now recognising that its not just a child being awkward or manipulative but its a slow process. Michael Jones has written an article for our new international magazine which comes out in Jan. This will hopefully spread the word to professionals throughout the world.
    I sometimes get referrals from other parts of the world and 2 this year have had SM which is not a recognised condition in their own countries (Holland and Russia)!

  4. I agree, it's hard to tell if a child has expressive language disorder or selective mutism. Thanks for this post. I really learn a lot. Also, kids with selective mutism really lacks self confidence. Thanks for the share.

  5. Micheal and Maggie have a new book coming out later this year which will be a fantastic resource for us.

  6. Hi I really like your article..where are you based? are you SLT?? I am a specialist slt in sm and we are very few...well done