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Shy? or Selectively Mute?

What's the difference?

       It is fairly typical for people to try to coax a shy child to talk; usually without success. Typical reactions include the child avoiding eye contact, fidgeting nervously, or burying her face as if this will make her invisible. Other shy children may respond with some gestures such as holding up a number of fingers to indicate their age, nodding or pointing. Some may respond to others with a barely audible voice or one-word answers.

       Shy children slowly ease into new situations. They usually begin by observing without participating. After some time to warm up, they may move in closer proximity to a group and eventually stand among the group even if they remain still. Some may engage in limited participation such as barely moving their feet when others are "marching" or silently moving their mouth as if they are singing with their peers.

       When shy children speak, they often sound "formal" as they tend use polite expressions they have been instructed to use ("yes ma'am", "thank you”, “excuse me") as opposed to freely emoting ("I had SO much fun!" or "See ya tomorrow!"). Outside of their home, these children are unlikely to confront others, engage in conflict or complain. Most shy children are described by adults as polite and well-behaved.

       Trying to coax a child with Selective Mutism (SM) into talking is almost certainly going to be unsuccessful. However, the SM child is not likely to hide, fidget, look away, cover his face, stifle a smile or laugh, nod, point, gesture or even show facial expression. Instead, he will probably appear to be “frozen” with a blank expression and avoid any eye contact.

       Children with SM will not ease into interacting and participating in situations that make them uncomfortable. They are not likely to actively observe but rather seem to be in their own world. If they are engaged in an activity with others and something about the setting changes, they may abruptly cease participation, withdraw and isolate themselves.

       Selectively mute children may not audibly communicate or even gesture. If they are sick, afraid, or even in severe pain, they may be unable to tell anyone, cry, or even show facial expression that might communicate their distress.

       Some children with SM may whisper to select individuals or only speak if other people are not within earshot to hear their conversation. It is fairly common for children with SM who begin speaking to do so with a “character” voice such as a talking animal (barking or meowing).

       Children with SM may behave as described above in some situations, but at other times they may be outspoken and downright bossy. They may be yelling at someone one minute and then completely expressionless and still the next. They may speak to a complete stranger, but not utter a sound or in any way communicate with close family friends or even relatives.

       Children with Selective Mutism are often perceived as insolent, manipulative, defiant, or spoiled by parents who permit rude behavior. Many are suspected of having Autism or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. They are also commonly referred for speech therapy. All of these speculations are incorrect, ineffective and inappropriate for addressing the disorder.

       Selective Mutism is rooted in anxiety. The symptoms occur when the child experiences an expectation to speak. This induces a panic response in which the child experiences a physical paralysis of the vocal chords and is literally unable to produce a sound; even in response to pain or severe distress. Attempts to motivate a child to speak using promises of reward or threats of punishment only heighten the anxiety and prolong the duration of the muteness.

       Selective Mutism is a treatable condition. It requires those who interact with the child to understand the nature of the disorder and learn appropriate techniques for communicating. Sign language and speech therapy are not indicated as this is not a speech disorder. Play therapy and counseling are not effective as the child may ultimately become comfortable enough to speak to the therapist, but still remain unable to speak in other settings such as school or in social settings. The key to helping a selectively mute child communicate is to understand how to minimize the child’s anxiety. This does not require specialized training or equipment. Anyone can learn simple techniques to understand how to establish the level of comfort necessary to enable a child with Selective Mutism to successfully communicate.