Selective Mutism and how to overcome its effects

November 12, 2012

Selective Mutism and how to overcome its effects

Selective mutism is a term used to describe a complex condition which stops children talking under certain conditions. It displays itself in situations where it is to be expected that the child will speak, for example in the classroom. Although selective mutism is said to be under reported within society it is thought that up to 0.7% of the population can be affected by it. It generally appears at around two and a half years up to just over four years old and the parents or carers will notice that the child interacts and speaks normally at home yet in the playschool or nursery environment they will not speak and have minimal social interaction. Medical professionals will be looking to see if the inability to speak in a particular situation happens consistently and yet in other situations interaction is as expected. If a child has selective mutism then there will be negative implications for that child if professional help is not sought. All social and academic aspects will suffer because speaking is a major part of learning academically or socially. Parents and professionals must be careful before making the judgement that a child has selective mutism as there are many other situations whereby a child will become quiet. Perhaps they have gone to a new school or there are language problems, the child is expected to talk in a language which is not their mother tongue. The reason for the quietness may be serious indicating the onset of another condition such as autism, schizophrenia or Asperger’s syndrome. Even extreme anxiety and stress can stop some children talking – find out if there is anything very stressful to the child in that situation. The classroom is normally when selective mutism is noticed. To understand how the condition is affecting the individual the severity of selective mutism must be judged. Perhaps the child does not talk to anyone in the classroom or maybe the child will talk to peers, it’s just the teacher and other authority figures that cause the condition to appear. By identifying the exact times the condition appears allows us to work on those areas selectively and increases our chances of successfully dealing with it. There is one treatment known as stimulus fading which works by surrounding the child with people they are most comfortable with and then slowly introduce the people that they are less comfortable with. The gradual introduction of the people considered less comfortable one by one over a period of time has shown positive results in the treatment of selective mutism. The aim of this procedure is to reduce the anxiety that the sufferer experiences allowing normal social interaction to return. Modern technology has a role to play in this condition too. It has been found that many children who do not talk are happy to use email or online chat to communicate with others. This can be used whilst other procedures are tried to desensitize the child. Another treatment which has been seen to be positive is to let the child record their own voice and get used to listening to themselves talking. The exposure to themselves talking often encourages them to start talking to others. Yet another procedure is to allow communication at a distance, by email, then as the person relaxes try communicating on the phone and after awhile doing that try face to face. The thinking here is that communication at a distance is less stressful to the child and so as they become comfortable with one style of communication we move on to the next one which is a little closer. This slowly desensitizes the child to help overcome their anxiety. In many cases the selective mutism only lasts for a few weeks and then passes but for some children it takes a bit longer and they require a little bit of extra help to recover.

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