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Selective Mutism

Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, such as with classmates at school or to relatives they do not see very often. It usually starts during childhood and, if left untreated, can persist into adulthood.

The Origin

If you know an individual who can talk freely at home but freezes up in public settings or who seems excessively shy, you may know someone with selective mutism. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder characterized by a person’s inability to speak in certain social settings such as at school, work, or in the community. People with SM are typically able to speak comfortably and communicate well in other settings, such as at home with family.

What are the signs and symptoms of SM? Hint: It’s not just shyness. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder, usually diagnosed in childhood, in which an individual is nonverbal in certain settings and situations, despite being able to communicate when comfortable or at home. If you know a child who displays the following behaviors, you may know a child with SM:

  • Speaks freely at home and with family but is nonverbal due to anxiety in public settings or around strangers

  • Is paralyzed with fear or shuts down completely when unable to communicate

  • Struggle to make eye contact when uncomfortable

  • Present as behaviorally inhibited 

  • Rely on pointing, nodding, writing, and other forms of nonverbal communication to answer questions 

  • Speak through a trusted individual—e.g., whispering an answer to a question to a parent or friend at school 

Selective mutism often co-occurs with other forms of anxiety, particularly social anxiety. A child is diagnosed with SM when the pattern of being unable to speak is persistent over time and causes significant impairment in daily functioning. An SM diagnosis is likely if it is difficult for a child to effectively participate in school or form friendships with other students their age due to an inability to speak in public.


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by Jacie Ruelas Corey

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