There are many common misconceptions about selective mutism. It is important to debunk the myths and understand the facts about selective mutism so that children suffering from the disorder can get the help they need. The following are common myths about selective mutism:
Myth 1: Children with selective mutism have experienced a trauma or have a deep dark secret.
It is commonly assumed that children with selective mutism are not speaking because something really bad happened to the child. This is typically not true. In fact, the rates of trauma in kids with selective mutism are the same as the general population. This myth can prevent parents from seeking help out of fear of what others might think and say. It can also prevent children from receiving much needed treatment for anxiety disorders.
Myth 2: Children with selective mutism are shy and will outgrow their difficulties speaking to others.
Selective mutism is not the same thing as being shy. Lots of children are shy. Kids who are shy tend to warm up to new situations over time. Shyness is a personality characteristic that doesn’t tend to get in the way of a child’s successes. Selective mutism is a disorder that prevents a child from performing successfully in many important areas of their life, such as academically and socially. Many people think that kids will outgrow selective mutism with time, but this is usually not true. If left untreated, children with selective mutism may endure years of suffering and miss out on age appropriate activities.
Myth 3: Children with selective mutism have speech problems and need speech therapy.
Some kids with selective mutism have speech and language problems, however, many do not. It is difficult to fully understand the relationship between speech and language problems and selective mutism because it is difficult to assess a child that does not speak to unfamiliar adults. It is important to know that for most children with selective mutism, speech therapy is probably not the most helpful first line of treatment, without any evidence of a speech and language disorder.
Myth 4: Children with selective mutism are just being oppositional and manipulative.
For many decades, children with selective mutism were considered oppositional and defiant. In fact, selective mutism was called elective mutism for a very long time because children were regarded as purposefully refusing to speak. We now know that selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that causes children to feel very afraid in social situations. A child with selective mutism may look angry or oppositional, however, these behaviours represent the child’s desire to avoid distressing and fearful situations.
Myth 5: Selective mutism is a form of autism.
Some people confuse selective mutism with autism, but it is important to know that they are not the same disorder. Autism and selective mutism may appear to be similar; when children with selective mutism feel anxious, they often react with a lack of eye contact, a blank expression, and a lack of verbal communication. However, children with selective mutism act differently across situations. They are often very social and talkative within comfortable situations, but shy and quiet in others. In contrast, children with autism tend to act the same across all types of situations.
Less than 1% of children have selective mutism. That means there is probably 1 child with selective mutism in every 5 classes at a school.
Girls are more likely to have selective mutism than boys.
For every 1 boy with selective mutism there are approximately 2 girls who have the disorder.
Many children with selective mutism also have social anxiety disorder.
Most children develop selective mutism between the ages of 2 and 4 years old. Despite an early onset, children with selective mutism are not typically identified until school entry and often do not receive professional help until they are 6 to 8 years old.
It is important to reduce the gaps between the onset, identification and treatment of children with selective mutism. The longer children with selective mutism go without treatment, the more difficult it is to treat.
About the author
AnxietyBC is a member of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information and is committed to building a provincial resource network through which reliable medical and psychological information and services are accessible by those impacted by anxiety disorders.