Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that the American Psychological Association (APA) estimates affects approximately one in 1,000 children. Though the condition is typically diagnosed in childhood, most often between the ages of three and eight years old, selective mutism can follow an individual into adulthood if gone untreated. The symptoms of selective mutism vary depending on the individual and include the complete inability to speak, speaking to only select individuals or whispering. When the individual is comfortable within a setting, either at home or within certain communities, he or she is able to speak and interact. The condition is highly treatable, especially when diagnosed in youth.
Children and adults struggling with selective mutism do not choose to be silent. The Selective Mutism Anxiety Research and Treatment (SMart) Center reports that more than 90 percent of individuals with selective mutism also struggle with social anxiety. These individuals face debilitating anxiety in certain social situations, though they might be fully functional, speaking with others. For this reason, it is wrongly perceived by many that these people have control over their mutism. The selective mutism nonprofit iSpeak suggests that “situational mutism” would be a more accurate term. Selective mutism is also different from traumatic mutism, which is mutism triggered by a traumatic event. As SMart Center reports, “Studies have shown no evidence that the cause of selective mutism is related to abuse, neglect or trauma.”
According to SMart Center, 20 to 30 percent of children diagnosed with selective mutism have speech issues. Lisps, stuttering and speech delays often contribute to social anxiety, which then manifests into selective mutism. Children who are not familiar with the primary language that is being spoken in their community also often refuse to speak or engage in activities in social settings; however, language barriers are not to be diagnosed as selective mutism. The disorder has physical symptoms in addition to mutism, including stomachaches, vomiting, joint pains and headaches.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is used to treat selective mutism, often in conjunction with prescription medications to manage symptoms of anxiety. Family involvement in the recovery process can be integral to an individual’s treatment, especially if he or she is a minor. If your or a loved one is struggling with selective mutism or social anxiety, help is available. Call the California Mental Health Helpline to speak with a professional and learn more about California treatment centers today.