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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 use 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

Everybody acts 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 she cannot speak except in the safety of her 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 to speak in certain situations 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children, selective mutism can sometimes be confused with an autism spectrum disorder, especially if the child acts withdrawn around his or her diagnostician.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 tools to rule out autism or language delay.

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

  • Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations – such as 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 usually first noticed when a child starts school.

 

Selective mutism may not be identified before kindergarten. This is because in preschool, 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 consider other scenarios.

 

Why “Selective” Mutism?

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