20 responses to “Selective Mutism”

  1. Sophie

    Oh wow. I didn’t know there was a word for that experience, or that it was so common. Mine isn’t anywhere near as bad, I don’t think I’d classify it as a disability (at least not now as an adult, it was sometimes debilitating as a child/teenager) but…yeah. One of the more unpleasant moments of my life was the first time I tried to break up with my abusive ex boyfriend (though that’s not how I was thinking of it at the time) and I ended up curled in the foetal positon at a bus station unable to move or speak for half an hour. FUNTIMES.

    Anyway, thankyou very much for making this post.

  2. xw

    I do better at speaking when my role is defined, such as in academic or club environments.

    Oh, absolutely! What other people consider “simple” questions cause me no end of anxiety — “Do you like that book?” “What are you doing this weekend?” — because there’s usually no framework and it’s far too perplexing (and time-consuming) to try to sort out my relationship with this person (acquaintance? coworker? classmate?) to figure out what the appropriate response is. [I’m not sure if this is similar to your situation or process, but it feels related…]

    I have never spoken very much (because I’m either disinclined to or simply CAN’T) and I’m very grateful to hear this discussed as an actual physical or biological phenomenon rather than a character flaw. …If possible, when I freeze like that, I typically pretend not to have heard, but that doesn’t always help.

  3. Tariq Smith

    Thank you for writing this. I think that you are right. There needs to be more awareness and use of other forms of, and other combinations of, communication styles –
    Dor example your idea of signing is really good and I think something that should be encouraged more often for people who are have selective mutism, or are shy, or stutter, or to for an hearing/speaking person to communicate with someone who signs…. there are so many times it would be useful. Also perhaps typing into a device and it speaks for when communicating with someone that doesn’t use sight or or produces braile for when communicating with someone who doesn’t use sound or sight for communication. There are so many other combinations of communication and sound/sight are privilaged so much. It’s so limited.

    Thanks again.

  4. Whirlwitch

    I read a lot of Torey Hayden books way back when. Many of the kids featured had elective mutism. I was wondering as I read whether they could be the same thing, and a quick Google just confirmed it. The name used to be elective mutism because the assumption was that the kids were choosing not to talk, since they were physically capable of it. So I am thinking about the gap between this rationale, and the reality. As well as the mindset that is a person does not do a thing they seem to be physically capable of doing, that they are simply choosing not to do it.

  5. Jesse the K

    Very illuminating! I’m glad you can communicate this experience, through whatever mode. Text-based conversation, like here, is very powerful for many disabled people.

    Selective mutism is mostly seen in children and adolescents, and it is important to understand that it is a failure to speak, not a choice not to speak.

    I was distressed to learn this condition was previously called elective mutism, as if the person with SM was “just stubborn.” That disabling metaphor serves the kyriarchy: it not only blames the victim, it defines the victim as having agency when we don’t. Fundamentally, it reduces our lives to how well we can serve the kyriarchs. Will she speak when spoken to? Good. “Refuses” to answer? Bad.

  6. Astrid

    Thanks so much fo rthis post. I can relate so much and especially could as a teenager. I borrowed thephrase “locked up inside” from a selective mutism E-mail support group I was part of briefly in 2003. (I I don’t have a diagnosis of selective mutism; mine is probably due to my autism-relatex anxiety.)

  7. erda

    But what I don’t understand is the lack of discussion on how to live well with the disorder.

    So true. There are all sorts of anxiety disorders that will never completely vanish no matter what the treatment.

  8. Static Nonsense

    In situations where I can’t speak, I’ve usually managed with American Sign Language, text/writing, or using my DS. It helps a lot when I need to communicate to loved ones, but most store clerks don’t understand me and think I’m just being rude. It’s really frustrating.

    And I definitely agree with the teaching children with SM sign language – if I had the chance to learn it when I was younger, it would have made communication so much easier for me even now. I can only imagine how many more people it would be helpful for.

    @Tariq Smith I agree, it would be awesome to see more creativity regarding communication.

  9. Sharon Wachsler

    Thank you so much for this informative post. I hadn’t heard of this before.

    In 2007, due to neurological damage from tick-borne disease, along with the loss of several other forms of function, I suddenly lost the ability to speak, *most of the time.* My voice would be gone upon waking up, and usually during the course of the day, it would slowly, croakily return. Sometimes, however, I could speak totally clearly in French or German or in song (though not when it was at its worst) and I could also produce unintentional sound (spontaneous laughter, crying out in pain), when I couldn’t speak.

    This led almost everyone in my life, including many doctors, to believe that it was psychological. Some people felt I was doing it to be manipulative. Since I love talking, words, speech, etc., and suddenly lost control of many aspects of my life by being unable to speak, the whole combination was torturous. Even the SLP I saw was clueless, although he did *not* give me the “it’s all in your mind” line. I wonder now if any of them had heard about selective mutism (without really understanding it) and thought that was what was going on.

  10. Cee

    Wow, thank you for posting this. I never knew what to call it or if anyone else experienced this.

  11. kaninchenzero

    holy fuck my life thank you thank you thank you

  12. Lauren

    I enjoyed reading this article, thank you for posting this and helping to spread awareness of this condition. I was diagnosed with Selective Mutism when I was in preschool. I was born 3 months premature and I theorize that the trauma of those first 3 months manifested itself as the selective mutism. I shared many of the same symptoms that you describe, most notably talking at home but not to anyone at school. I was treated with play therapy by a local psychologist, and I suppose it worked, though I can’t remember anymore. My “shyness” gradually got better over my formative years.

    I don’t think I was “cured” though – there are still some situations where I experience the same sensation of being “unable* to speak – or, if I am able to, things come out very hesitant and garbled. And then there are many situations where I act very “normal” and can speak freely and accurately.

    I’ve always been much more comfortable with – and better at – written communication than verbal communication.

    I also often feel uncomfortable socially, as a geek woman. I agree that not always feeling comfortable in general contributes to episodes of muteness.

  13. bluehook

    Some of what you say runs parrallel to my own experience. Although not to the same extent, I have difficulty initiating conversation and answering questions that require personal emotional opinion, yet have no problem at all in public speaking and can function much better in a group when I have a set role or part to play. I see this as all being a function of my Asperger’s Syndrome, along with social anxiety. Is it possible you have undiagnosed Asperger’s or another Autism Spectrum condition? Not that that would effect a ‘cure’ but might explain the origin of the difficulty.

  14. permockable

    Thanks for writing this. Yesterday, I started writing up a thing about my experience with SM, but apparently that’s triggery for me, and it ended in a panic attack and deletion. So I’ll just say that it was seriously bad when I was a kid, and it’s something I still struggle with (I was 22, I think, when I had to communicate with my BFF and my now-husband via a notepad for something like 36 hours).

    Also: I had no idea there was a term for this until you mentioned it a while back, and I had a major YANA moment — similar to the first time other people mentioned that they had phone phobias too — “really it’s not just me what.” So, yeah, thank you.

  15. Kaz

    Thank you for writing this post! It was very informative and interesting to read. :)

    I stutter, and although I think that’s a very different speech disorder (I get a not-being-able-to-speak feeling but on specific sounds and words while I’m talking rather than any sort of general topic, and I can still force them out resulting in blocks) there were things I could really, really identify with in this post. In particular, your last paragraph had me mentally jumping up and down going “yes! Yes! Yes!” Dialogue around stuttering esp. in the medical realm also focuses pretty much solely on speech therapy, with *maybe* a little bit of stuttering acceptance thrown in but even that’s often focused on “if you feel less anxious about stuttering you’ll stutter less!” Which is ridiculous given the low success rate of stuttering speech therapy. Living with it – I’ve turned up a few blogs that talk about it, but in the speech therapy/professional realm it’s pretty disastrous. And alternative methods are essentially never, ever talked about. Any kind of typing-to-audio device, sign language, writing in place of speaking – only place I’ve seen these discussed is on disability rights blogs, and hardly any PWS (people who stutter) identify as disabled.

    I am also sadly unsurprised to hear it used to be assumed people with selective mutism were doing it on purpose (and really hope that attitude’s not so widespread any longer). Again, similar things happening with stuttering – which is also variable, and where PWS are usually totally fluent in specific situations.

    Also, re: autism discussion – I do sometimes experience a difficulty translating thoughts to words which I blame on autism, but I’m not sure how related that is. For instance, I think it actually causes more difficulty for me in typing than in speech – when I’m talking I can sort of shove the idea of what I want to say at my vocal cords and have something that’s at least closely related to it come out, whereas I’ll have months where I feel as if I’m barely able to communicate in text at all. Then again, I have no idea how typical this is for autistic people either.

  16. Sharon Wachsler

    @Kaz – Yeah, when I developed apraxia, I already knew some ASL and became pretty conversant in it out of necessity. When I went to see the SLP, I said (through an interpreter), “I’m very lucky that I already knew sign so I can still communicate with some of the people in my life.”

    And he was like, “Not everyone signs, though. Don’t you want to be able to speak?”

    Which I felt like was 1. Missing the point entirely (that I was grateful I had some means of communication, having suddenly become unable to voice), 2. Audist/oppressive attitude toward Deaf people, and 3. Obnoxious, because of course I wanted to be able to speak or why would I have been there?

    So, with you on the bad attitude toward alternative modes of communication. The only doctor I saw of the dozens in that period who got that it was a blessing I knew how to communicate nonverbally was my PCP. Everyone else was completely freaked out, clueless, or even hostile to it.

  17. Cassandra

    Thank you for this post. I never knew there was a name for this specifically. I’ve always had trouble talking to people and have been chastised for what people see as me being stubborn and difficult. I wont ask sales people at stores questions even when I really need to and I have an incredibly hard time talking on the phone. I write out what I’m going to say before hand a lot of the time. I went through almost all of middle school without speaking. A couple of years ago I stopped communicating with almost everyone completely for months. The only people I had contact with were my parents and even that was limited. It was hard to recover from that because I’d felt like I had lost the ability to carry on any normal conversations. The internet has actually helped me a great deal. I joined some online forms and started posting as a way to dip my toes back in the water.