Q: My five-year-old daughter, who I will call Sara Leah, started kindergarten this year and I have been getting a lot of calls from her teacher about issues in the classroom. Her teacher keeps telling me that Sara Leah does not speak to her or other children in the class. She mentioned that I should have my daughter checked for autism.
I’m actually shocked by this news! At home and with my family my daughter is outgoing, communicative and just a pleasure to be around. She plays with her siblings, inventing games that they all enjoy. At the dinner table, sometimes I have trouble getting her to stop chatting when someone else wants to speak.
From what I know about autism, she doesn’t seem to fit that description at all. But, then again, I don’t see her in school. Is it possible that my daughter is autistic even if she doesn’t seem that way at home?
A: It’s difficult for me to make a statement about your daughter anchored in description alone, but based on the way you have portrayed her I would venture to say that autism is not the problem at all. While autism is often associated with a lack of communication, children with autism display other behaviors such as hand flapping, repetitive behavior, and social isolation.
So, what might be making your daughter so quiet in the classroom? It is possible that your daughter suffers from selective mutism. The New York Times explains that children and adults with this disorder are fully capable of speech and understanding language, but can fail to speak in certain situations when it is expected of them.
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association details the specific symptoms of selective mutism:
The inability to speak interferes with educational or occupational achievement.
The length of the inability to speak lasts more than one month (excluding the first month of school).
The failure to speak does not stem from a lack of knowledge or comfort with the language required for the situation.
Selective mutism usually occurs before a child is five-years-old and is usually first noticed when a child starts school.
It makes sense that your daughter’s teachers would not have picked up on this in preschool because children are not often forced to speak in the learning process. In addition, children in preschool who do not speak are considered shy, whereas in kindergarten, teachers begin to get wary and believe it might be something more than shyness.
The good news is that when diagnosed and addressed early, selective mutism can be treated and defeated. Often selective mutism stems from anxiety that children feel when placed in social situations. This anxiety builds each instance that the child remains silent – creating a cycle of fear that prevents speech even when the child wishes to speak. Forcing a child to speak will only aggravate the problem. Therefore, the first step in treating selective mutism is reducing the anxiety associated with speech. Depending on the child, one or more techniques might be utilized:
Stimulus Fading: This technique involves bringing the children into a relaxed situation with someone they talk to comfortably. With time, another person should gradually be introduced into the room in a number of small steps. While it can take a long time for the first person to be “faded-in,” eventually, the child will lose some of her anxiety when it comes to new people.
Shaping: Instead of encouraging the child to speak right away, this structured approach allows the child to communicate non-verbally through gestures, facial expressions, and mouthing. Once this is achieved, the child is slowly encouraged to make sounds and eventually words.
Using these techniques in a controlled and comfortable setting will help your daughter gain the confidence and assurance that she too can speak outside of the home. Before you know it, her teachers will be calling to tell you she’s being disruptive in class and needs to quiet down!