Suffering in Silence: Selective Mutism in Children
By Rula Sinara
We all know how critical communication is for progress and survival—whether of a species, culture or even a relationship (I still think things get ‘lost in translation’ between the male and female sexes;). And there are so many ways of communicating…different languages, including sign language, technology and, sometimes, a lot can be communicated with a look or a smile. But it’s a whole different world when the inability to communicate doesn’t stem from language differences, but from deeply rooted fear or anxiety. In particular, trying to help or raise a child who suffers from selective mutism is heartbreaking and often frustrating because you don’t want to watch them suffer.
Although, due to counseling, they’re better now, two out of my three kids struggled with some developmental issues, anxiety and associated communication difficulties when they were younger. Both had a tendency to shut down, sometimes for hours. One often acted out in frustration while the other would retreat into himself. He was emotionally hypersensitive and, if something happened at school, he’d sit and stare at his desk (sometimes for almost an hour). The problem was we’d be at a loss as to what tipped him off because he wouldn’t tell us. He’d clam up.
Ten year old Maddie, in After the Silence, has suffered from selective mutism since her mother’s death (some might say that she suffers from traumatic mutism but her symptoms run a gray line and often ‘labeling’ and definition changes occur in psychology, as they recently did with Asperger’s). I drew a lot from my experiences at home and at school with my boys when I wrote this story. That led to some emotional times when I had to take a break from writing because the memories would flood back. For those of you who know a child suffering from mutism and wish to find out more, I’ve listed a few resources. This is by no means a complete list and it’s not intended to replace a professional diagnosis and help.
A website called The Selectively Silent Childpoints out that “The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fourth Edition (DSM-IV) defines selective mutism as:
· 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, or comfort with, the spoken language required in the social situation.
· The disturbance is not better accounted for by a Communication Disorder (e.g., Stuttering) and does not occur exclusively during the course of a Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Schizophrenia, or other Psychotic Disorder.”
A few great places to research information on child mutism are:
In my experience, research is a powerful ally in helping a parent become a formidable advocate for their child. Plus, quite often, a child’s situation or presentation isn’t necessarily ‘textbook’. Individual cases abound in psychology and medicine. Different doctors can have different opinions on the same patient. But it all boils down to helping a child feel safe, loved and strong enough to embrace the world around them.
And to those of you who have struggled to help a child suffering from any form of mutism and its associated conditions/co-morbid disorders, hugs to you. Know that you’re strength and patience is admired, appreciated and a gift to that child…just as children are a gift to us all. There are no boundaries for love.