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Sometimes My Autistic Child Will Not Speak. Could it be Selective Mutism?

Mute. Boy pressing a virtual touch screen. Blue background.

Sometimes a child or adult with autism may appear mute. They may freeze-up and not be able to speak in certain circumstances, struggling with their words, or not being able to form any. When this happens it is known as “selective mutism.” Selective Mutism, although, often seen with autism, and many times even misdiagnosed as autism, is a separate disorder. A person can suffer from selective mutism without being autistic.

What is Selective Mutism?

Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. It is a temporary inability to speak. Although it is known as a childhood disorder, adults, especially those on the autism spectrum can also be affected. These children and adults are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed. Sometimes helping the child or adult feel comfortable in a setting, or allowing them to communicate in another, possible non-verbal, way can help them overcome the mutism.

What Causes Selective Mutism?

Selective Mutism is a complex disorder with many possible “causes.” It is an anxiety disorder, where the person experiencing the mutism is experience great anxiety, and/fear. More than 90% of children with Selective Mutism also have social phobia or social anxiety. This disorder is quite debilitating and painful to the child or adult who likely desires to speak and communicate. The terminology used to name the disorder can be misleading, giving onlookers the wrong impression. Selective indicates that the mutism happens in select locations, or at select times, but is often perceived as intentional, or a choice—it is not. It is important to understand that the adult or child experiencing the mutism is not just refusing to speak.

Do Autistic People Have Selective Mutism?

Children and adults with autism, PDD-NOS, Asperger’s and other developmental disorders can manifest mutism that is selective in location. Selective mutism among autistic children can be a result of anxiety. Because they do not understand their emotions the anxiety shows itself in inhibiting their ability to communicate. This mutism is often reported to occur when the autistic person is overloaded, overwhelmed, experiencing a meltdown, or under an inordinate amount of stress.

What Does Selective Mutism Feel like?

Selective Mutism can feel like a burning golf ball is stuck in your throat blocking your words from escaping. It is painful; you can feel frozen, in shock, panicked, and embarrassed. Many times tears will fall. Rudy Simon, author of Aspergirls; Empowering Woman with Asperger’s Syndrome, describes selective mutism as a temporary inability to speak. In her book, she interviews many aspergirls, and says that almost every single aspergirl that she interviewed suffered from selective mutism as some point in their lives, and some still continue to. The best way to explain what it is like to experience selective mutism is to hear from these women yourself. Here are a few quotes from, Aspergirls:
“There are plenty of times when m y brain freezes and I don’t figure out what to say for a few days or so afterwards—my ability to continue the conversation just shuts down, and I’m restricted to rehearsed statements that add nothing.” (Anemone)

“The mutism lasted until my mid-20’s. Unfamiliar or judgmental people would trigger it and it would last as long as I was with those people. When I have selective mutism, I cannot form a novel thought and it is like blackness.” (Widders)

“Mutism is actually my biggest problem. It always has been. I have a difficult time speaking fluently as it is, because my brain doesn’t work in words. It works in images, sounds, patterns. When I’m upset or nervous my translation system breaks down. I can think and think, but I can’t turn any of it into words—and I can’t exactly project my thoughts out through my forehead. It hurts, and it hurts others when I can’t respond to them.” (Andi)

Although Selective Mutism is a separate disorder that can be diagnosed with autism, many autistics report experiencing it. Sometimes it is persistent, and manifests itself in one selective location or situation, but sometimes it does not. For autistic individuals, this temporary inability to speak can happen when anxious, stressed, overloaded from sensory stimuli, or during a meltdown. In these situations speech will return to normal, when the stressors are removed; however, it could take some time. Several hours, or even days are often required to regain a competent amount of speech.


Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.

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