Selective mutism

Selective mutism (SM) is an anxiety disorder in which a person who is normally capable of speech cannot speak in specific situations or to specific people. Selective mutism usually co-exists with Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD).[1] People with selective mutism stay silent even when the consequences of their silence include shame, social ostracism, or punishment.[2]

Selective mutism

Signs and symptoms

Children and adults with selective mutism are fully capable of speech and understanding language but are physically unable to speak in certain situations, though speech is expected of them.[3] The behaviour may be perceived as shyness or rudeness by others. A child with selective mutism may be completely silent at school for years but speak quite freely or even excessively at home. There is a hierarchical variation among people with this disorder: some people participate fully in activities and appear social but do not speak, others will speak only to peers but not to adults, others will speak to adults when asked questions requiring short answers but never to peers, and still others speak to no one and participate in few, if any, activities presented to them. In a severe form known as "progressive mutism", the disorder progresses until the person with this condition no longer speaks to anyone in any situation, even close family members.

Selective mutism is by definition characterized by the following:[4]

  • Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations (in which there is an expectation for speaking, e.g., at school) despite speaking in other situations.
  • The disturbance interferes with educational or occupational achievement or with social communication.
  • The duration of the disturbance is at least 1 month (not limited to the first month of school).
  • The failure to speak is not due to a lack of knowledge of the spoken language required in the social situation.
  • The disturbance is not better accounted for by a communication disorder (e.g., childhood-onset fluency disorder) and does not occur exclusively in people with autism spectrum disorders or psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia.

Selective mutism is strongly associated with other anxiety disorders, particularly social anxiety disorder. In fact, the majority of children diagnosed with selective mutism also have social anxiety disorder (100% of participants in two studies and 97% in another).[5][6][7] Some researchers therefore speculate that selective mutism may be an avoidance strategy used by a subgroup of children with social anxiety disorder to reduce their distress in social situations.[8][9]

Particularly in young children, SM can sometimes be confused with an autism spectrum disorder, especially if the child acts particularly withdrawn around his or her diagnostician, which can lead to incorrect diagnosis and treatment. Although autistic people may also be selectively mute, they often display other behaviors—hand flapping, repetitive behaviors, social isolation even among family members (not always answering to name, for example)—that set them apart from a child with selective mutism. Some autistic people may be selectively mute due to anxiety in social situations that they do not fully understand. If mutism is entirely due to autism spectrum disorder, it cannot be diagnosed as selective mutism as stated in the last item on the list above.

The former name elective mutism indicates a widespread misconception among psychologists that selective mute people choose to be silent in certain situations, while the truth is that they often wish to speak but are unable to do so. To reflect the involuntary nature of this disorder, the name was changed to selective mutism in 1994.

The incidence of selective mutism is not certain. Due to the poor understanding of this condition by the general public, many cases are likely undiagnosed. Based on the number of reported cases, the figure is commonly estimated to be 1 in 1000, 0.1%.[10] However, a 2002 study in The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimated the incidence to be 0.71%.[11]

Other symptoms

Besides lack of speech, other common behaviors and characteristics displayed by selectively mute people, according to Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum's findings, include:[12][13]

  • Shyness, social anxiety, fear of social embarrassment or social isolation and withdrawal
  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact
  • Blank expression and reluctance to smile or incessant smiling
  • Difficulty expressing feelings, even to family members
  • Tendency to worry more than most people of the same age
  • Sensitivity to noise and crowds

On the positive side, many people with this condition have:

  • Above-average intelligence, perception, or inquisitiveness
  • Creativity and a love for art or music
  • Empathy and sensitivity to others' thoughts and feelings
  • A strong sense of right and wrong[13]


Selective mutism (SM) is an umbrella term for the condition of otherwise well-developed children who cannot speak or communicate under certain settings. The exact causes that affect each child may be different and yet unknown. There have been attempts to categorize, but there are no definitive answers yet due to the under-diagnosis and small/biased sample sizes. Many people are not diagnosed until late in childhood only because they do not speak at school and therefore fail to accomplish assignments requiring public speaking. Their involuntary silence makes the condition harder to understand or test. Parents often are unaware of the condition since the children may be functioning well at home. Teachers and pediatricians also sometimes mistake it for severe shyness or common stage fright.

Selective mutism occurs in all ethnic groups. The majority of reported cases are of white and multiethnic children. However this could be due to under-diagnosis and under-reporting in other ethnic groups.

Most children with selective mutism are hypothesized to have an inherited predisposition to anxiety. They often have inhibited temperaments, which is hypothesized to be the result of over-excitability of the area of the brain called the amygdala.[14] This area receives indications of possible threats and sets off the fight-or-flight response. Behavioral inhibitions, or inhibited temperaments, encompass feelings of emotional distress and social withdrawals. In a 2016 study,[15] the relationship between behavioral inhibition and selective mutism was investigated. Children between the ages of three and 19 with lifetime selective mutism, social phobia, internalizing behavior, and healthy controls were assessed using the parent-rated Retrospective Infant Behavioral Inhibition (RIBI) questionnaire, consisting of 20 questions that addressed shyness and fear, as well as other subscales. The results indicated behavioral inhibition does indeed predispose selective mutism. Corresponding with the researchers’ hypothesis, children diagnosed with long-term selective mutism had a higher behavioral inhibition score as an infant. This is indicative of the positive correlation between behavioral inhibition and selective mutism.

Given the very high overlap between social anxiety disorder and selective mutism (as high as 100% in some studies[5][6][7]), it is possible that social anxiety disorder causes selective mutism. Some children with selective mutism may have trouble processing sensory information. This could cause anxiety and a sense of being overwhelmed in unfamiliar situations, which may cause the child to "shut down" and not be able to speak (something that some autistic people also experience). Many children with selective mutism have some auditory processing difficulties.

About 20–30% of children with SM have speech or language disorders that add stress to situations in which the child is expected to speak.[16] Despite the change of name from "elective" to "selective", a common misconception remains that a selectively mute child is defiant or stubborn. In fact, children with SM have a lower rate of oppositional behavior than their peers in a school setting.[17] Some previous studies on the subject of selective mutism have been dismissed as containing serious flaws in their design. According to a more recent systematic study it is believed that children who have selective mutism are not more likely than other children to have a history of early trauma or stressful life events.[18] Another recent study by Dummit et al., in 1997 did not find any evidence of trauma in their sample of children. Recent evidence has shown that trauma does not explain why most children with selective mutism develop the condition.[19] Many children who have selective mutism almost always speak confidently in some situations. Children who have experienced trauma however are known to suddenly stop speaking.


Contrary to popular belief, people with selective mutism do not necessarily improve with age.[20] Effective treatment is necessary for a child to develop properly. Without treatment, selective mutism can contribute to chronic depression, further anxiety, and other social and emotional problems.[21][22]

Consequently, treatment at an early age is important. If not addressed, selective mutism tends to be self-reinforcing. Others may eventually expect an afflicted child to not speak and therefore stop attempting to initiate verbal contact. Alternatively, they may pressure the child to talk, increasing their anxiety levels in situations where speech is expected. Due to these problems, a change of environment may be a viable consideration. However, changing school is worth considering only if the alternative environment is highly supportive, otherwise a whole new environment could also be a social shock for the individual or deprive them of any friends or support they have currently. Regardless of the cause, increasing awareness and ensuring an accommodating, supportive environment are the first steps towards effective treatment. Most often afflicted children do not have to change schools or classes and have no difficulty keeping up except on the communication and social front. Treatment in teenage or adult years can be more difficult because the afflicted individual has become accustomed to being mute.

The exact treatment depends on the person's age, any comorbid mental illnesses, and a number of other factors. For instance, stimulus fading is typically used with younger children because older children and teenagers recognize the situation as an attempt to make them speak, and older people with this condition and people with depression are more likely to need medication.[23]

Like other disabilities, adequate accommodations are needed for the afflicted to succeed at school, work, and in the home. Under the U.S. federal law and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), those with the disorder qualify for services based upon the fact that they have an impairment that hinders their ability to speak, thus disrupting their lives. This assistance is typically documented in the form of an Individual Educational Plan (IEP). Post-secondary accommodations are also available for people with disabilities.

Under another law, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, public school districts are required to provide a free, appropriate public education to every "qualified handicapped person" residing within their jurisdiction. If the child is found to have impairments that substantially limit a major life activity (in this case, learning), the education agency has to decide what related aids or services are required to provide equal access to the learning environment.


An afflicted child is brought into the classroom or the environment where the child will not speak and is videotaped. First, the teacher or another adult prompts the child with questions that likely will not be answered. A parent, or someone the child feels comfortable speaking to, then replaces the prompter and asks the child the same questions, this time eliciting a verbal response. The two videos of the conversations are then edited together to show the child directly answering the questions posed by the teacher or other adult. This video is then shown to the child over a series of several weeks, and every time the child sees himself or herself verbally answering the teacher/other adult, the tape is stopped and the child is given positive reinforcement.

Such videos can also be shown to afflicted children's classmates to set an expectation in their peers that they can speak. The classmates thereby learn the sound of the child's voice and, albeit through editing, have the opportunity to see the child conversing with the teacher.[24][25]

Mystery motivators

Mystery motivation is often paired with self-modeling. An envelope is placed in the child's classroom in a visible place. On the envelope, the child's name is written along with a question mark. Inside is an item that the child's parent has determined to be desirable to the child. The child is told that when he or she asks for the envelope loudly enough for the teacher and others in the classroom to hear, the child will receive the mystery motivator. The class is also told of the expectation that the child ask for the envelope loudly enough that the class can hear.[24][25][26]

Stimulus fading

Afflicted subjects can be brought into a controlled environment with someone with whom they are at ease and can communicate. Gradually, another person is introduced into the situation. One example of stimulus fading is the sliding-in technique,[20] where a new person is slowly brought into the talking group. This can take a long time for the first one or two faded-in people but may become faster as the patient gets more comfortable with the technique.

As an example, a child may be playing a board game with a family member in a classroom at school. Gradually, the teacher is brought in to play as well. When the child adjusts to the teacher's presence, then a peer is brought in to be a part of the game. Each person is only brought in if the child continues to engage verbally and positively.[24][25][26]


The subject communicates indirectly with a person to whom he or she is afraid to speak through such means as email, instant messaging (text, audio or video), online chat, voice or video recordings, and speaking or whispering to an intermediary in the presence of the target person. This can make the subject more comfortable with the idea of communicating with this person.


The subject is slowly encouraged to speak. The subject is reinforced first for interacting nonverbally, then for saying certain sounds (such as the sound that each letter of the alphabet makes) rather than words, then for whispering, and finally saying a word or more.[27]


Spacing is important to integrate, especially with self-modeling. Repeated and spaced out use of interventions is shown to be the most helpful long-term for learning. Viewing videotapes of self-modeling should be shown over a spaced out period of time of approximately 6 weeks.[24][25][26]

Drug treatments

Some practitioners believe there would be evidence indicating anxiolytics to be helpful in treating children and adults with selective mutism,[28] to decrease anxiety levels and thereby speed the process of therapy. Use of medication may end after nine to twelve months, once the person has learned skills to cope with anxiety and has become more comfortable in social situations.[29] Medication is more often used for older children, teenagers, and adults whose anxiety has led to depression and other problems.

Medication, when used, should never be considered the entire treatment for a person with selective mutism. However, the reason why medication needs to be considered as a treatment at all is because selective mutism is still prevalent, despite psychosocial efforts. But while on medication, the person should still be in therapy to help them learn how to handle anxiety and prepare them for life without medication, as medication is typically a short-term solution.[30]

Since selective mutism is categorized as an anxiety disorder, using similar medication to treat either makes sense. Antidepressants have been used in addition to self-modeling and mystery motivation to aid in the learning process.[24][25] Furthermore, SSRIs in particular have been used to treat selective mutism. In a systematic review, ten studies were looked at which involved SSRI medications, and all reported medication was well-tolerated.[31] In one of them, Black and Uhde (1994) conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study investigating the effects of fluoxetine. By parent report, fluoxetine-treated children showed significantly greater improvement than placebo-treated children. This indicates that fluoxetine is an SSRI that is indeed helpful in treating selective mutism.


In 1877, German physician Adolph Kussmaul described children who were able to speak normally but often refused to as having a disorder he named aphasia voluntaria.[32] Although this is now an obsolete term, it was part of an early effort to describe the concept now called selective mutism.

In 1980, a study by Torey Hayden identified what she called four "subtypes" of elective mutism (as it was called then), although this set of subtypes is not in current diagnostic use.[33] These subtypes are no longer recognized, though "speech phobia" is sometimes used to describe a selectively mute person who appears not to have any symptoms of social anxiety.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), first published in 1952, first included elective mutism in its third edition, published in 1980. Selective mutism was described as "a continuous refusal to speak in almost all social situations" despite normal ability to speak. While "excessive shyness" and other anxiety-related traits were listed as associated features, predisposing factors included "maternal overprotection", mental retardation, and trauma. Elective mutism in the third edition revised (DSM III-R) is described similarly to the third edition except for specifying that the disorder is not related to social phobia.

In 1994, Sue Newman, co-founder of the Selective Mutism Foundation, requested that the fourth edition of the DSM reflect the name change from elective mutism to selective mutism and describe the disorder as a failure to speak. The relation to anxiety disorders was emphasized, particularly in the revised version (DSM IV-TR). As part of the reorganization of the DSM categories, the DSM-5 moved selective mutism from the section "Disorders Usually First Diagnosed in Infancy, Childhood, or Adolescence" to the section for anxiety disorders.[34]

  • Raj Koothrappali, a character on The Big Bang Theory who once had selective mutism around women to whom he wasn't related unless he drinks (or thinks he drinks) alcohol.
  • Effy Stonem, a character on Skins who has selective mutism, especially during season 1 and 2.
  • Jude Adams Foster, a character on The Fosters once had selective mutism as a result of dealing with his many problems including the failed adoption of his sister Callie, his questioning of his sexual identity and the forbidden friendship/relationship with his best-friend Connor Stevens. He does this to prevent anymore problems occurring in his life and eventually comes out of it to tell his feelings to his sister Callie.

See also


  1. Viana, A. G.; Beidel, D. C.; Rabian, B. (2009). "Selective mutism: A review and integration of the last 15 years". Clinical Psychology Review. 29 (1): 57–67. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2008.09.009. PMID 18986742.
  2. Brown, Harriet (12 April 2005). "The Child Who Would Not Speak a Word" via
  3. Adelman, L. (2007). Don't Call me Shy. LangMarc Publishing.
  4. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 195. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
  5. Dummit, E. S.; Klein, R. G.; Tancer, N. K.; Asche, B.; Martin, J.; Fairbanks, J. A. (1997). "Systematic Assessment of 50 Children with Selective Mutism". Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 36 (5): 653–660. doi:10.1097/00004583-199705000-00016. PMID 9136500.
  6. Vecchio, J. L.; Kearney, C. A. (2005). "Selective Mutism in Children: Comparison to Youths with and Without Anxiety Disorders". Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment. 27: 31–37. doi:10.1007/s10862-005-3263-1.
  7. Black, B.; Uhde, T. W. (1995). "Psychiatric Characteristics of Children with Selective Mutism: A Pilot Study". Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 34 (7): 847–856. doi:10.1097/00004583-199507000-00007. PMID 7649954.
  8. Yeganeh, R.; Beidel, D. C.; Turner, S. M. (2006). "Selective mutism: More than social anxiety?". Depression and Anxiety. 23 (3): 117–123. doi:10.1002/da.20139. PMID 16421889.
  9. Sharp, W. G.; Sherman, C.; Gross, A. M. (2007). "Selective mutism and anxiety: A review of the current conceptualization of the disorder" (PDF). Journal of Anxiety Disorders. 21 (4): 568–579. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2006.07.002. PMID 16949249.
  10. Chvira, Denise A.; Shipon-Blum, Elisa; Hitchcock, Carla; Cohan, Sharon; Stein, Murray B. (2007). "Selective Mutism and Social Anxiety Disorder: All in the Family?". Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 46 (11): 1464–472. doi:10.1097/chi.0b013e318149366a. PMID 18049296.
  11. Bergman, RL; Piacentini, J; McCracken, JT (2002). "Prevalence and description of selective mutism in a school-based sample". J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 41 (8): 938–46. doi:10.1097/00004583-200208000-00012. PMID 12162629.
  12. "Selective Mutism Symptoms". Archived from the original on 2008-08-21. Retrieved 2013-02-21.
  13. Online Parent Support (2005-05-26). "Selective Mutism". Archived from the original on 2013-01-17. Retrieved 2013-02-21.
  14. "SMart Center: What is Selective Mutism?". Archived from the original on 4 May 2009. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  15. Gensthaler, Angelika; Khalaf, Sally; Ligges, Marc; Kaess, Michael; Freitag, Christine M.; Schwenck, Chrstina (October 2016). "Selective mutism and temperament: the silence and behavioral inhibition to the unfamiliar". European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 25 (10): 1113–20. doi:10.1007/s00787-016-0835-4. PMID 26970743.
  16. "Cohan, Sharon L. Refining the Classification of Children with Selective Mutism: A Latent Profile Analysis" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 7 October 2011. Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  17. Sharp, William G. Selective Mutism and Anxiety: A Review of the Current Conceptualization of the Disorder
  18. Steinhausen and Juzi, 1996.
  19. Cunningham, Mcholm, Vanier, 2005.
  20. Johnson, Maggie; Alison Wintgens (2001-06-21). The Selective Mutism Resource Manual. Speechmark Publishing Ltd. ISBN 978-0-86388-280-7.
  21. Selective Mutism Group: Ask the Doc archives: When do I need to seek professional help for my child? and What about adults? What are the long-term effects of SM?
  22. Emma Ketteley. "Virginia Tech University mass killer Cho Seung Hui diagnosed with Selective Mutism". BBC This World.
  23. Ricki Blau (2005-09-20). "The Older Child or Teen with Selective Mutism" (PDF). Selective Mutism Group.
  24. Kehle, Thomas J.; Madaus, Melissa R.; Baratta, Victoria S.; Bray, Melissa A. (1998). "Augmented Self-Modeling as a Treatment for Children with Selective Mutism". Journal of School Psychology. 36 (3): 247–260. doi:10.1016/S0022-4405(98)00013-2.
  25. Shriver, Mark D.; Segool, Natasha; Gortmaker, Valerie (2011). "Behavior Observations for Linking Assessment to Treatment for Selective Mutism". Education and Treatment of Children. 34 (3): 389–411. doi:10.1353/etc.2011.0023.
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  29. "Nothing found for Find Help Ask The Doc Archives Index_Html Question4 Meds".
  30. "Nothing found for Find Help Ask The Doc Archives Index_Html Question27 Meds".
  31. Manassis, Katharina; Oerbeck, Beate; Overgaard, Kristen Romvig (June 2016). "The use of medication in selective mutism: A systematic review". European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 25 (6): 571–8. doi:10.1007/s00787-015-0794-1. PMID 26560144.
  32. Tots, Bright. "Selective mutism what is selective mutism childhood disorder".
  33. Torey Hayden. Classification of Elective Mutism
  34. American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.


  • McHolm, Angela E., Cunningham, Charles E.,& Vanier, Melanie A. (2005). "Helping Your Child With Selective Mutism". New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  • Dummit; et al. (1997). "Systematic assessment of fifty children with Selective Mutism". Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 36 (5): 653–660. doi:10.1097/00004583-199705000-00016. PMID 9136500.
  • Steinhausen, H. Juzi, C. (1996) "Elective Mutism: An analysis of 100 Cases". Journal of the American Academy of child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 35. pp. 606–614.
  • Johnson, Maggie and Wintgens, Alison, (2016). "The Selective Mutism Resource Manual: 2nd Edition (A Speechmark Practical Sourcebook)".
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