We recently received a question on selective mutism.
What is selective mutism?
A condition in which a person with normal verbal skills refuses to speak in particular settings.
Are there typical settings where a person won't talk?
Often it is a school setting.
Will a person talk in some settings?
Yes, the "selective" piece is that the person won't talk in some settings but will talk in others.
What are the causes?
It may be a symptom of social phobia- fear in social settings. There does seem to be an anxiety component.
Treatments for anxiety are recommended. This would include approaches such as cognitive therapy, counseling and anti-anxiety medications such as the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (such as sertraline, paroxetine, etc). I refer you to our book on Mental Wellness (Woodbine, 2006) for much more in-depth information on therapies and medications.
There are other treatments such as:
Stimulus fading: the person is in a relaxed setting with someone they talk to freely and gradually a new person is introduced to the setting (someone that they have difficulty talking to)
Shaping : support, encourage, and reinforce all efforts by the person to communicate (eg gestures, whispering, etc) until audible speech is achieved.
Self-modeling technique: have child watch videotapes of himself or herself performing the desired behavior (e.g., speaking effectively at home) to promote self-confidence and carry over this behavior into the classroom or setting where mutism occurs
More commonly what we see in people with Down syndrome is a complete lack of talking (all settings) or whispering. (This is not common in our patients but is more common than selective- occurring only in some settings). This may be related to anxiety, depression, physical illness, and others. It is sometimes associated with Obsessional Slowness. I refer you to our Mental Health book for more information on Obsessional Slowness (http://www.woodbinehouse.com/main.asp_Q_product_id_E_1-890627-65-8_A_.asp)
This is a link to an article describing selective mutism in a 15 year old with DS.