What is selective mutism?
Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that can cause children to freeze up and be unable to speak in certain settings (ex: school) even when their speech is normal in other, more familiar settings (ex: home).
Selective mutism is frequently accompanied by social anxiety, which means a general feeling of anxiety related to social situations.
When left untreated, children are likely to develop avoidance habits so that they won't need to speak up. Unfortunately the avoidance behavior can get continually reinforced over time, when others assume they will not speak and begin to speak for them. It can get harder to break out of this cycle when the child becomes concerned that beginning to speak may attract undue attention, which they have been trying so hard to avoid. For these reasons, early intervention is highly recommended.
How do you treat selective mutism?
Standard play therapy or talk therapy are generally NOT the interventions of choice for selective mutism. Even if the child succeeds in speaking to a therapist in their office, this will likely not carry over into other settings where speech is more difficult for them.
We use a specific, evidence-based, behavioral approach which includes extensive parent and teacher training. The child is prompted and encouraged to speak through gradual exposure exercises. The prompts are presented in a way that sets the child up for success with incremental small goals. We use generous praise and rewards to encourage brave speech. As the child progresses, we raise the challenge level of the daily and weekly speaking goals.
Sessions are most likely to take place in school or whichever setting the challenge presents most. We may begin sessions in the home to help the child get comfortable speaking to the therapist.
The most crucial component of this intervention is the parent and teacher training, which enables continued progress throughout the week even when the therapist is not present.
For a child struggling with selective mutism, the summer months before the upcoming new school year present a wonderful opportunity for a fresh start.
Working on speaking goals is easier when in a new environment where people do not already associate the child with not speaking. A new camp or a summer program is a terrific chance to begin working on speaking goals in a setting that the child will likely find less challenging.
The key is for the new teachers or summer counselors to receive training BEFORE they encounter the child, so they can encourage speech from the very beginning using specific methods.
If you are seeking help for transitioning your child into a new school year, we suggest you begin at least a few weeks before the new school year. This allows time for some parent and teacher training, the child adjusting to speaking to the therapist, as well as a fade -in session with teachers during which the child can experience success in speaking to their new teachers BEFORE the first day of school.
We look forward to working together with you to set your child up for success!