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Although I am not a parent, I am interning in social work. I am currently working with a student in an elementary school who does not speak. The parents have explained that she does speak at home (I also witnessed her speaking to her mother outside of the school), but she has not said a word since she began school in August. I work with her individually and in a group, and she still refrains from speaking in both settings. We wonder if the cause is anxiety because she's not speaking at school but she is at home. Have any of you experienced something similar with your children? What can we do as school staff to create an environment that is more comfortable/less anxiety-inducing for her?

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Have you check out selectivemutism.org? They offer a number of resources, articles, and suggestions for both parents and social workers. –  Scott Mitchell Apr 13 '11 at 2:08
    
We have a referral form where we can send kids to the nurse for an eye check, counseling for a session, or the speech therapist. Call in an expert! –  Marc Jul 30 at 15:27

11 Answers 11

I'm 13 and I'm the same way. It's a medical condition called 'Selective Mutism'. I've been to several people and even been put on medicine and it hasn't helped. But my parents and I are trying. We've recently learned not to pressure them to talk or little things like that. My teachers would give me a mini whiteboard to write my answer down or I would write it on a piece of paper. Try to ask her only yes or no questions like 'Is this what you want?'. Some SM (Selective Mute) people will not nod, make eye contact, write answers down,etc.. However some people including me WILL make eye contact, nod, and write their answers down. Try not to yell at her for not talking. It's hard (even for the student). I went to regular school from pre-K - 5th grade. I used to worry about what they all would think about me. I felt nervous (more nervous than most people do) standing in the lunch line, walking down the hall, in the front of the class, even outside with my friends. I talk at home - a lot. But I will not talk in public. It's not that we don't want to, it's that we can't make ourselves, no matter how hard we try. We often get panic attacks also. I am homeschooled now because I got kicked out of regular school because of my Selective Mutism. My mom just told them I was shy so after 4th and 5th without talking (to them) they said I couldn't come back so my mom blamed me. However she should have told them about my condition and they might have understood.

I really can't explain anything else because it's kinda hard but here is a link to a website that is really helpful and I hope I helped a tiny bit.

http://theselectivemutism.info/symptoms-of-selective-mutism/index.php
If none of these answers worked try searching for 'Selective Mutism'.

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I had selective mutism until I was 7 and nobody noticed. I talked a lot with my family and in school they just assumed I was shy. That was not the case since I really wanted to talk, but I could not say a word. I was very anxious. I don't ever remember being bullied about it. I had a few friends at school, and even when I didn't talk, they knew I was listening because I smiled or nodded. I got good grades too, in fact I was the best in the class because teachers made written exams. Now even when I am socially awkward sometimes, I can speak even in large groups of people. –  Badger Girl Jun 29 '12 at 13:01
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Your writing shows knowledge and compassion. You will find your place in the world. It just won't be the typical place. But then, there's no shortage of "typical" people for those places. –  Marc Feb 5 at 17:51

As a speech language pathologist I have worked with several children with Elective or Selective Mutism. From my experience, early intervention results in the best outcome. At age 12, her patterns are now strongly engrained and makes a difficult communication problem even more challenging.

From her non verbal responses, a more thorough understanding of the quality of her communication at home is needed to help determine if there are other communication/learning factors that are impacting her skills.

Several children that I worked with would talk with siblings or close friends at school at least in a whisper. I began by grouping them together in a play environment (playground or in room with toys) while I sat nearby. I gradually and naturally over weeks added my brief attention or interaction to their activity. As acceptance increased, I began asking for their interaction first physically (such as giving me toys or complying with simple requests) and then advanced slowly but methodically to answering simple questions nonverbally. After the child was willing to verbally respond to me, another child was added to the group.

Each child is unique. My first child was in therapy for years before he ever talked with even his family, but finally progressed and graduated from school as a typical speaker. Other children made the transition to from non-speakers to appropriate school communicators in several months.

Developing age appropriate non verbal skills should be a primary focus even though the child does not speak. A very accepting, non-demanding and responsive environment is needed to support a child who chooses to not speak.

Kudos for your concern and acceptance of this child!

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I am 13 and have selective mutism. when I am pressured into doing things that I do not want to do in school I freeze up and do not move. Other times I get incredibly angry but as I do not talk in school I end up getting over whelmed and 'freezing' or breaking down crying. kids with selective mutism do not like to seem different from others and may not like special measures being taken just for them if it draws attention. hope this helps

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As your response here proves, you can communicate, and you have things to say, you just have trouble saying them in the traditional way. A girl on my youngest daughter's soccer team was like you. She could whisper quietly to close friends, but could not talk to others. The key to her success on the team was for her mother to make clear to others that everyone was to speak to her normally, and not expect a verbal reply. When nobody pushed her to speak, she did well. She never did speak to me, but she'd smile, laugh, and she played a good game of soccer. –  Marc Feb 5 at 17:36
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Thanks for your response Gemma. You clearly state what should be avoided and why. Could you add a little more about what the Original Poster could do instead? Perhaps, let her be and give her time while you treat her normally otherwise? –  balanced mama Feb 5 at 20:45

Our 3.5 year old had exactly the same pattern recently develop. All of a sudden at day care he wouldn't say a word to anyone, but at pre-school, at play group, here at home, basically everywhere else he was "normal". A quick bit of fly on the wall observation showed he was being bullied outside the teacher's observation at day care and his reaction was to simply withdraw into his shell and not talk. That was the key to breaking that problem, figure out why and give him the tools to deal with it. (also a bit of education for the bullies helped I'm sure.)

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My four year-old daughter is like this, although I didn't realize there was a term for it until just now. Some things we have found to help:

  • Don't assume that being afraid to talk is the same as not being good at talking. My daughter has a very good vocabulary for her age, probably because she spends so much time listening.
  • Let her answer in whichever way is most comfortable for her. Try adapting questions to be yes or no, so she can nod. Older children might be more comfortable writing or whispering. In a classroom setting, provide a nonverbal way to do things like ask permission to leave for the restroom.
  • Let her sit with a close friend or sibling who can be her "voice." Our son is quite the extrovert and is very helpful to our daughter in social situations.
  • Don't pressure. Our daughter is also scared of trying new things, not just social situations. Often if she freezes up about trying something, we just say something encouraging like, "You can do it." Then after we turn our attention elsewhere, she will do it on her own, and proudly come show us the results.
  • She has a hard time answering if she's not 100% sure of herself. That means she has an easier time answering a question like, "What's your name?" than the answer to an academic question a teacher just asked.
  • Unlike most other kids, she doesn't like getting praised in front of a group.
  • Don't try to make everyone be her friend. Work on cultivating one or two close friendships, with kids who won't pressure her to open up.
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You are right, the lack of speech in different social environments is due to anxiety. The high level of anxiety that a selectively mute child experiences causes them to be silent in many situations. It is best for the child to have a professional diagnosis of selective mutism and then see if there are any experienced professionals (in dealing with selective mutism) that can meet with members of the school to discuss methods to help ease the anxiety at school. That will be the first step in helping the child speak at school. It is a long process though, don't expect results right away.

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I definitely agree that a professional diagnosis would be the best next step. Initially the parents were resistant to her receiving any counseling or speech therapy, let alone any type of evaluation, but recently the dad agreed for her to have a special education evaluation. –  razzlerae Apr 21 '11 at 5:21
    
It's a common misconception that kids in special education are all slow learners. This is just not the case. They all nave a specific learning disability, but are often great students. My own straight-A high-schooler started elementary school in special ed for a speech problem. I've taught hundreds of special ed students who were good students with a specific problem to work on. –  Marc Jul 30 at 15:38

I work with a 14 year old girl who has selective mutism. I've been spending a couple of hours every weekday with her for 5-6 months now and a couple of weeks ago she said "hey" to me, just the once, and that was the only time I'd ever heard her voice.

I highly doubt there's anything you can actively do to help her through this. The only thing you can do is to not pressure her or draw attention to her in a group situation in any way. The more you try to persuade her the less likely she will be to talk.

What is really important in the case of a child like this is to get a proper professional diagnosis of selective mutism and from there professional help, there are plenty of experts out there that can advise you/the school on the best way to approach this.

I know that in the case of the girl I work with, having me around has helped her, since she feels more comfortable doing things and participating (even if non-verbally) when she knows that I am there to take care of things if people make it awkward for her. It's a lot easier for her to communicate (not necessarily by talking) with one person than to do it in front of a group.

Can she communicate nonverbally? An important thing I found is that it's usually a bad idea to give her a choice. If I ask "do you want this or this?" I'm never going to get a response, but if I say "is this OK?" then sometimes I might get a nod.

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Thanks for your feedback. She does communicate non-verbally but in some situations, I am unsure what to make of it. In general, when I see her in the hallways at her school, she gives me a gigantic smile and keeps her eyes on me, so I take it that she at least associates me with something positive. My supervisor, her teachers, and her speech therapist (who she worked with to see if there was some processing issues), asked her to point to things, but she has not. I have successfully been able to point to things like T, for her name and she will write that letter. –  razzlerae Apr 21 '11 at 5:14
    
I also noticed that she nods in response to every question that she is asked. It is hard to give her A or B options because she will nod in agreement to whatever the last option was. The speech therapist pointed to the color pink and asked the student "is this black?" and she nodded. So yes, she communicates, I just dont know how to interpret it. I did want to also point out that recently, I was working with her and few other students. In my office, we have a bunch of teddy bears with different faces to express their feelings. She did select a bear, that appeared to be anxious. –  razzlerae Apr 21 '11 at 5:19
    
The bit about nodding in response to "A or B" questions may be unrelated to her speech issues -- that type of question takes some kids a while to parse. (My 3-year-old certainly hasn't. She always answers "yes" or "no" to "A or B" questions.) –  JPmiaou Oct 8 '13 at 21:43

My 5yo son has done this in many new environments, including the first preschool we put him in. In his preschool, he did not talk to any students or teachers for about 4 months. It was particularly bad because he was potty trained, but he wouldn't tell anybody he had to go to the bathroom, so he was regularly having accidents at school. Then, all of the sudden, one day he decided that he would start talking to everyone, teachers and students alike. When I went to pick him up from school the teachers were in shock because they had never heard a word out of him, then all the sudden they realized that he was actually quite an eloquent speaker for his age. I even heard another student telling her mom, "Mommy, guess what? He just learned how to talk today?"

It seems to mostly be a control thing for him. He is almost always shy to talk to new people, but has even gone through phases where he stopped talking to people he knew very well. For example, he went a few months without talking to my dad and my brother. Later on he said it was because they were tickling him once and they didn't stop when he asked them to. Another example is the fact that he knew how to talk before 1.5 years old, because he would say words here and there, but he generally would just grunt at everything until about 2.5 years old. Then, all of the sudden he decided to talk in complete sentences.

He is also very slow to try anything new in an unrecognized setting. For example, the first time we went to the beach when he was about 9-10 months old, he wouldn't crawl off of the beach blanket and touch the sand. He slowly started touching it with his toes, then reaching out with his hand, and after about 5 hours, when we were about to leave, he finally built up enough courage to start playing in the sand.

Some kids are generally shy or feel like they are in control when they aren't talking. I'm no expert in the area, but in our case, we just never make a big deal out of it. If he doesn't want to talk or doesn't want to try something new, we just say "OK, that's fine" and let it go. Sometimes he'll change his mind and decide to talk or participate, and sometimes he won't.

I think in general, the more comfortable you can make the situation for your student, the more receptive she'll be to opening up and talking. But I don't think you want to do anything that will bring direct group attention to her until she invites it.

If she's old enough to write, see if she'll write things down. Or perhaps, see if you can work out sign language signs with her at least for basic communication, like "I have to go to the bathroom", and "I'm thirsty".

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The kid we are talking about may be just noticing the environment around her..... coming from home with (normally) none or one/two siblings and all the attention in the world from the parents. (I am not saying you guys don't pay attention at school, but school environment kind-of is for everybody.) This happens when any person goes to a new environment.... even adults are mostly shy initially at a new job, or at a party where they don't know many people.

Think from the child's perspective. Apart from some play-dates or family get-togethers, the child has not witnessed much social contact. And this is the first time.

I suggest you stay on with your good work, and like in the previous answer to this question, get her with you on certain things....like when you want to have some water, signal/suggest it to her too.

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There is this free app on the App Store called "Text To Speech" and how it works is you type down what you want to say and the app will speak what you typed. It is extremely helpful at school for me, because I sometimes can't actually speak to people because my throat closes up. I recommend it, as she will be able to communicate without being forced to speak.

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Asperger would explain it. The child is overwhelmed (schools are very busy places) and feels out of control, but is probably following everything and will start to talk sooner or later.

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So what? The concept of this site is that a question can have multiple answers. –  reinierpost Jan 24 '13 at 23:18
    
Selective mutism manifests itself completely differently from Asperger's in close family settings. The selective mute child can seem completely "normal" in small groups among close friends and family. Their difficulty only arises among people they don't share a very close personal tie to. If you're outside that close group, you might think Asperger's, but those inside would not. –  Marc Feb 5 at 17:42
    
I'm not saying they are the same thing. I'm saying there is probably a reason for the selective mutism, and I was suggesting something like Asperger's might be such a reason. –  reinierpost Feb 6 at 10:15

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