What is Selective Mutism?

October is the awareness month of many different causes. One you may not be aware of is, Selective Mutism.

My name is Leanne, I’m 22 years old and I have suffered with Selective Mutism since before I can even remember. This October, I am going to make it my mission to spread awareness about this debilitating condition based on nothing more than personal experiences. Although with the hard work and dedication of many people the awareness about Selective Mutism gets better and better every year, there is still very limited information and research out there which often leaves many people to literally suffer in silence. Therefore, I feel there is nothing more valuable than learning from the perspective of someone who has to live with this condition every single day of their life.

So what is Selective Mutism?

I want to get one thing out there before I go into any detail about what Selective Mutism is. Many people who hear the words Selective Mutism automatically presume that it’s when someone chooses to be mute. Wrong. This could not be further from the truth.

Selective Mutism is a severe form of social anxiety that usually starts in early childhood, though it is also possible for people to have late onset of Selective Mutism in their teens or even in adulthood. It affects around 7 in 1000 children, or 1 in 150 children. It is often picked up on when they start school for the first time and teachers notice that the child is either not speaking at all or speaking very minimally. People with Selective Mutism experience such severe anxiety in certain social situations, (the most common place being school) that their entire body tenses up, including their throat muscles and they become physically unable to speak, despite having absolutely no problems with speech in situations where they don’t experience this severe anxiety, which most commonly tends to be at home.

The best way to look at Selective Mutism is to look at it as a phobia. If you have any phobias, you’ll understand the intense anxiety that comes with that. Imagine having a phobia of let’s say spiders and imagine the anxiety you would experience if someone were to ask you to pick up a tarantula. Have you ever experienced stage fright? Imagine that the whole world is a stage. If you can imagine these things, you may be able to imagine what it feels like when someone with Selective Mutism is expected to speak in a situation where they feel extreme anxiety.

I’ve been asked many times, what’s the difference between talking at home and talking in other places, there’s no difference between the two? For most people who don’t have Selective Mutism, that may be the case, but for many people with Selective Mutism they have a genetic predisposition to developing anxiety disorders. Many of them have a smaller than average amygdala (the part of the brain involved with the experiencing of emotions) meaning their brains can often think they’re in danger, which sets off an extreme anxiety response, even if in reality they are under no threat whatsoever. As a sufferer of Selective Mutism, I can tell you that I am fully aware that if I talk that I’m not going to die or anything like that. I know absolutely nothing bad will happen if I talk, in fact I know that only good things would ever come from talking absolutely everywhere. The anxiety is so intense beyond my control that I can’t stop it from happening, no matter how hard I try. Anyone who has ever experienced any kind of anxiety disorder, SM or not will be able to tell you how crippling anxiety is, how it completely takes over you, it feels literally impossible to stop it from happening, even if you realise how silly it seems.

Because people who develop Selective Mutism tend to have this genetic predisposition to developing anxiety disorders, this means that even everyday things that happen to children all the time, such as getting lost in the supermarket could be enough to trigger Selective Mutism. If the child gets lost and is unable to find their parents, that could create extreme anxiety for them. Then, if a stranger is to notice that the child is lost, they could go up to them and try to help them and because the child is experiencing such severe anxiety, they could then begin to associate strangers with feeling very anxious. With most children they might be upset for a while, but once they found their parents, they would soon get over it. However, an anxious child may not.

In its most severe form, Selective Mutism can progress to the point where the sufferer experiences such severe anxiety that they become unable to speak to anyone at all in all situations, including family members. This is called Progressive Mutism.

Contrary to popular belief, Selective Mutism is not usually caused by trauma. In some cases it is, but usually if someone stops talking after having a traumatic experience that would be called Traumatic Mutism.

It is often wrongly portrayed in the media that Selective Mutism is caused by abusive parents. In the majority of cases this is not the case, in fact most people with Selective Mutism actually come from very loving families.

If you would like to learn more about Selective Mutism, there are many more resources online about it. I have just tried to explain it in a way that I think most people would understand. There will be more blogs like this all about my personal experiences and opinions throughout the month of October, so if you like them, feel free to share them as much as you like to get the word out there about Selective Mutism so we can become even closer to ending the suffering of those suffering in silence for good!


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