Selective mutism is a rare psychiatric condition primarily occurring during childhood. It is characterized by the failure to speak in certain social situations. The ability to speak and understand spoken language is not impaired, and may be exhibited in more familiar environments. Symptoms include excessive shyness and social anxiety.
Selective mutism is a rare psychiatric disorder characterized by persistent failure to speak
in specific social situations (e.g., school, with playmates, or when strangers are present) where speaking is expected. Affected individuals may communicate by gesturing, nodding their heads, uttering sounds or one-syllable words, or whispering. However, individuals with selective mutism usually talk normally at home and appear to have typical language skills – although they may have subtle language difficulties in areas such as grammar when compared to other children their age.
Symptoms may also include fear of social embarrassment, clinginess and anxiety. Individuals with selective mutism are also more likely to have anxiety disorders such as social phobia.
Individuals with selective mutism may be excessively shy, socially isolated, and withdrawn. In some cases, selective mutism lasts only a few weeks or months. However, some cases have been reported to continue for several years.
Symptoms of selective mutism usually become noticeable between the ages of two and four years. However, the diagnosis may not be apparent until the child has entered school or other social situations. Functioning in school and social situations may be impaired. Individuals with selective mutism are commonly compliant, reticent, and almost “frozen” around strangers.
The exact cause of selective mutism is unknown. Some research suggests a genetic
influence or “vulnerability” to selective mutism that interplays with environmental factors. Particular personal and family characteristics may contribute to the appearance of selective mutism. Individuals with selective mutism may come from families in which there is a history of anxiety disorders and/or shyness. The term “selective” means that these children fail to speak in some social settings. The cause is not due to an underlying physical abnormality.
Selective mutism is recorded to affect less than one percent of children in the United States. This disorder appears slightly more common in females than in males. The percent of affected population is unknown due to undiagnosis and misdiagnosis.
The diagnosis of selective mutism may be confirmed by an extensive medical evaluation
to rule out other possible causes. The evaluation should include hearing tests to assur. that the child is not hearing impaired. A child with selective mutism has the ability to
understand and speak spoken language but will not speak in some social situations. The Selective Mutism Questionnaire for parent or teacher may aid in diagnostic screening.
Treatment of selective mutism consists of behaviour management and psychotherapy (such as cognitive behavioural therapy and family therapy). A multi-modal approach is often recommended. The therapies that may be effective in treating selective mutism are counter-conditioning, modeling, shaping (successive approximations), and contingency management. Counter-conditioning involves developing new behaviors that are not compatible with the undesirable behaviors. Modeling includes demonstration of the appropriate behaviour and can also effectively include self-modeling. Self-modeling may involve repeatedly watching digitally edited video/audio recordings of the child exhibiting the desired behaviour, i.e. talking in social situations. Shaping is a method for developing complex behaviors by progressively reinforcing simple behaviors that will eventually lead to the desired complex behavior. Bribery and consequences should be avoided to meet this end. Contingency management consists of providing positive reinforcement to the child when something has been done correctly and consequences when an inappropriate behaviour has occurred.
Use of the drug fluoxetine and other selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) is being studied for the treatment of selective mutism. More studies are needed to determine the long-term effectiveness of drugs for the treatment of selective mutism. Early evidence is promising and suggests that SSRIs are most effective when paired with behaviour management therapies.
Information on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at www.clinicaltrials.gov.
All studies receiving U.S. government funding, and some supported by private industry,
are posted on this government web site.
For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in
Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:
Tollfree: (800) 411-1222
TTY: (866) 411-1010
For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:
Contact for additional information about selective mutism:
Evdokia Anagnostou, MD
Clinician Scientist, Bloorvew Research Institute
Assistant professor, Department of Pediatrics
University of Toronto
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