If you have never heard of selective mutism or don’t fully understand what it is, you’re certainly not alone.
It’s basically a severe anxiety disorder that surrounds speaking.
It goes beyond shyness or being quiet or introverted. It is a physical response where, in select social situations the person will freeze and be incapable of speech, most common in school settings or around those they don’t spend much time with or know personally.
The majority of those who suffer from selective mutism (SM) are children, but it can often follow them into adulthood if not adequately supported and addressed when it first becomes apparent.
It is possible to develop SM later after childhood, though quite rare, and that would typically be more prevalent with traumatic mutism, which is a response where speech is lost due to a trauma suffered. They are, in fact, different disorders, and that’s one of the points I’ll be discussing in the myths about selective mutism.
I struggled with selective mutism all throughout my childhood, and I would still say it lingers.
Though now, I am always able to respond and do not freeze in the way I used to when I was a child, I will still struggle to answer questions or converse as I normally would in certain scenarios where I feel more pressure or anxiety, and I still suffer the response of my mind going blank and trying to keep answers minimal because of the intense pressure I start to feel.
Sometimes selective mutism feels so complex, and I go through times of not understanding it myself, so it’s no wonder the majority of people who have actually heard of it don’t fully understand it either. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating, though.
So, I’ll discuss some of the common myths about selective mutism (sometimes referred to as situational mutism).
1. People with SM are being stubborn or choosing not to speak
Selective mutism is not a choice. The “fight, flight, or freeze” response is triggered in select social scenarios, and a person with SM will freeze, making it physically impossible for them to speak at the moment. Sometimes it goes even beyond speech because the “freeze” response is so severe.
They will even encounter their mind going completely blank, as in, they wouldn’t know how to respond if they could, but the intense feelings of pressure and anxiety will still be present. This still happens to me occasionally where even though I can physically respond most of the time now, whereas I used to not be able to, I’ll sometimes still flounder on what to say because I can only think about not wanting to have to speak or feeling stupid or much too magnified where I do not want all eyes on me, so my response will be affected by all of this rather than being able to have a simple conversation.
This is the point I cannot stress enough that I truly don’t think people who don’t have experience with this understand: selective mutism is not a choice.
2. They don’t have anything to say
It’s actually quite the opposite of this. Many who struggle with selective mutism are thought to be boring or dumb, or even that their mind doesn’t work properly.
Those who have SM have lucid functioning minds (and their ears work fine too, so they can certainly hear unkind remarks regarding their lack of speech). I’ve found they actually probably have the most interesting things to say if only they felt comfortable. This is in part because those who are selective mute listen intently and analyze.
I often have so many thoughts and ideas about things that I just don’t express, and I always wish I could. Interacting with someone who has SM takes patience and a desire to get to know them past their anxiety disorder. You will hear about a lot of interesting experiences and takes if you put in the effort and don’t treat someone differently, allowing them to open up when they’re ready.
3. They will grow out of it
My selective mutism was much more severe when I was younger. I would even say I have outgrown it all together; in fact, I do usually say that, even though I still have strong social anxiety.
Sometimes I’m not entirely sure I had outgrown it, though, because I do still experience that freeze response and struggle to converse in certain scenarios, even if not in nearly the same way when I was young.
Oftentimes, in the right atmosphere, a selectively mute child will make developments and progress, but that doesn’t mean the disorder magically goes away. It might come up in certain situations no matter how old they are and no matter how much progress they have made. And, in more severe cases, they may not outgrow it all.
There are all different levels of this anxiety, like with any mental health concern. And this brings us to the next point about how supportive environments can make all the difference.
4. They’ll speak if pressure is put upon them to do so
This is something I had to endure a lot of when I was younger, and I’m sure every selective mute or socially anxious person, especially as children, has stories about the horrible pressures that were put on them to speak.
This was most common with my teachers, who tried to force the words out of me. I’m not saying all of them did by any means, but I had plenty of teachers who tried to force participation and what they consider normalcy.
The pressures extended to some family members and friends as well, and unsurprisingly I was never able to speak comfortably with the ones who tried to get me to without letting me ease into comfort and a feeling of safety on my terms. You cannot bribe or force someone out of their selective mutism, and more often than not, if you try, the condition will probably worsen.
Not only is this approach insensitive, traumatic, and disrespectful, it’s extremely harmful to the path of progress that is the ultimate goal for someone struggling with this. Supportiveness is the only answer for those who have a loved one with any anxiety disorder or mental health concern in their lives.
5. It’s a form of autism
Many people think this because some of the indicators and responses are similar, like avoiding eye contact, and autistic individuals are not always able to speak either, but autism is pervasive, whereas selective mutism is not. It’s definitely possible that someone could have both, but they are two entirely different disorders.
6. It’s only caused by trauma
There are cases in which traumatic events could cause a child to no longer speak, but that’s not the only cause of selective mutism. In fact, that type of response will often be referred to as traumatic mutism, and although the lack of speech response is the same, the disorder is again different.
Plenty of people who have selective mutism have simply always struggled with it, and there wasn’t necessarily a trigger that caused it to occur. There are environments that could either worsen it or contribute to improvement, but it doesn’t mean they were the cause of it in the first place.
7. Selective mute is just a fancy way of saying shy
Many who are selective mute are also shy. I’d say I’m probably shy in addition to the selective mutism, but sometimes I’m not really sure.
This is one of the aspects about it that gets confusing for me, and I’ll state that I’m not an expert on this at all. I am just one person who has experienced this, and I’m trying to make sense of it like anyone else would with their own struggles. Many of my friends used to think it was funny how I’d be so loud and outgoing at home and hangout scenarios but couldn’t speak at all in school.
Selective mutism was even less known at that time than it is now, so I didn’t know that’s what I struggled with when I was younger. I’m not sure I would have been able to make sense of it even if I did. But I have heard many stories about those who have SM and how they are not shy at all, but they still freeze in certain situations with their words. I think it was beyond that in my case, and I was/am also shy, but I suppose in many ways I’m not.
I can speak to those I’m comfortable with freely, but I do still feel awkward in many scenarios, even if I have spent a lot of time with the people I’m with. And I have trouble expressing certain emotions or feelings to even those I am comfortable with, so maybe I’m both shy and not. Or maybe I’m not, and it’s still my SM lingering in those situations. I’ll have to think about that more and read about the experiences of others.
When I struggle to have conversations with people now, I usually tell them I’m shy simply because I feel like it’s easier and much less complex even though it’s not the full truth and, perhaps, I’m taking away from learning experiences about selective mutism by doing that. But everyone understands what it means to be shy (well, maybe not fully), even if selective mutism goes way beyond that.
And as we have already covered, selective mutism makes communication near impossible, so when I’m in a moment of struggle, I’m not thinking about letting people know why I’m thinking about wanting it to be over.
8. They all understand their disorder
As briefly mentioned above, I still struggle to understand this, which is one of the reasons I now question whether I have even overcome it fully or if I have just made progress because I’m older and out of school.
School was always the worst situation for my SM and the main place it was triggered. I didn’t understand it at all at the time when it was most prevalent—my whole childhood.
In addition to needing more help for myself at that time, those around me needed education on the topic, too. I wish I had more resources and people who understood it when I needed it because maybe it would have made school a bit more tolerable. But, I can only hope now to be a voice (ha-ha, a written one) in the community and share some information and experiences that other younger individuals might find helpful.
If you know someone who struggles with selective mutism, the best thing you can do is show support and interest in them and be patient with their progress. They are hyper-aware of how different they are, and they don’t need that reinforced—that’s another damaging response that selective mute individuals have to deal with.
And if you, yourself, have selective mutism, I wish I could say it gets easier. Maybe in some ways, it does, but it’s something you have to be persistent with because there’s really no other option, and just because something is near impossible for you that seems like it’s barely a thought for others doesn’t diminish your progress and accomplishments.
Everyone has struggles and fears to contend with, and kindness is always the answer.