What Is Selective Mutism?

Selective mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder in which a child is unable to speak in certain settings or to certain people. The most common setting for children with SM to struggle in is school. The disorder can be confusing to adults and painful for children, who experience so much anxiety that they actually feel unable to speak in certain situations, even though they can speak easily and comfortably other times, such as when they are at home with their parents. Children with SM don’t necessarily look anxious; they may stare back or look frozen when asked a question or prompted to engage.

The disorder often isn’t discovered until a child first starts going to school and his teacher notices that something is wrong. Parents might not realize their child has trouble speaking around other people since talking is not a problem at home. Or they may think that their child is shy, but not realize just how impairing their child’s anxiety really is.

Kids who have selective mutism might only be able to speak in a whisper to teachers or peers. Others might not even be able to manage a whisper, and might go the entire school year without speaking once. Children with SM may not be able to answer questions in class, even when they know the correct response, and they may struggle to ask for help or initiate conversations. Many children with SM cannot ask to use the bathroom, and may go hours or the whole day without using the bathroom (or may have accidents).