What Is Selective Mutism?

When children are unable to speak around certain people or in certain settings, they may have an anxiety disorder called selective mutism (SM). It is common for kids with SM to be very chatty at home with family but silent at school. Parents typically start noticing signs of SM when a child is three or four years old. The disorder might not be diagnosed until she is school-aged, when her problems with speaking become more apparent.

A child with SM might go a whole year or more in a classroom without speaking once to her teachers, counselors or peers. Typically, kids with SM are mild mannered and polite in classroom settings, so their silence can be misinterpreted as shyness and never addressed as a possible barrier to their learning. Additionally, pediatricians may tell parents that the “shyness” will pass and discourage families from seeking treatment.

Selective mutism can cause significant impairment in a child’s life. It can interfere with kids’ performance at school, both academically and socially. It can prevent kids from asking for help if they need it, like telling the teacher they need to use the bathroom. And it can prevent kids from engaging in many fun activities that require verbal communication, including play dates. The good news is that with the right help, kids with SM can get better.