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The Burden of Silence: Understanding Selective Mutism

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I’ll Try Tomorrow
Here I am! I wanted to say
The girl that comes here everyday
I wanted to talk and be a part of you
And show you everything that I can do
But I sat here quietly day after day
Not knowing why I can’t ask you to play
I wish I had the strength to try
But, it was just too hard (I was too shy)
You used to ask me many times to play
But I couldn’t answer I turned away
I wanted to smile and join in the fun
But I remained silent (I wanted to run)
I know I’m different but I want to be like you
But it’s the hardest thing for me to do
Now the day is over and my heart is filled with sorrow
For I couldn’t speak again today, I guess
I’ll try tomorrow…

Fil Wickman, sufferer of selective mutism

 

 

People act differently when they are at home and when they are in school. Some children might be more outgoing at home, but more reserved in school. However, for some children, the split between home and school can be severe and potentially debilitating. For those like Wickman, the author of the poem above, speaking in school or in public can be torturous. So torturous in fact, that they cannot speak except in the safety of their own home.

For many years, people suffering from selective mutism, or the inability to speak in certain social situations, were thought to be unstable or abused. Their behavior was attributed to an emotional disturbance. Recent research, however, has proven that the idea that children with selective mutism are disturbed is a myth that should be discredited and exposed.

 

What is selective mutism?

Selective mutism is a disorder that usually occurs during childhood. Children and adults with this disorder are fully capable of speech and understanding language, but can fail when it is expected of them. Particularly in young children, selective mutism can sometimes be confused with an autism spectrum disorder, especially if the child acts withdrawn around his or her diagnostician.

Although children on the autistic scale may be selectively mute, they display other behaviors such as hand flapping, repetitive behavior and social isolation. Children with selective mutism do not exhibit these other behaviors; in fact, they are often very well-adjusted, but simply cannot speak in certain social situations. A videotape of the child at home playing and spontaneously communicating with a sibling or parent is one of the most effective and least inexpensive diagnostic ways to rule out autism or language delay.

 

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association lists the following symptoms of selective mutism:

  • Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations – such as in school or with neighbors.
  • This 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 generally first noticed when a child starts school.

 

Selective mutism is not often identified before kindergarten. This is because in preschool, children are not often forced to speak as part of 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.

Why “Selective” Mutism?

Not too long ago, selective mutism used to be called elective mutism – indicating a choice on the part of the child to willfully speak or not speak in different social situations. The truth is that these children are forced by their extreme anxiety to remain silent – even if they wish to speak. In order to signal the involuntary nature of this disorder, the name was changed to selective mutism. When it comes to treatment, it is important to understand that the children want to speak, but simply cannot overcome their anxiety.

About the Author: An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation,, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net. Visit her on the web at rifkaschonfeldsos.com.


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