Selective mutism - the children and adults too anxious to talk

A five year old who developed a severe anxiety disorder which gave her a phobia of speaking to others is helping to raise awareness of the condition.

Until recently the only people five-year-old Effie spoke to were her mum, dad, brothers and sister.

She was diagnosed during lockdown with selective mutism - a severe anxiety disorder that prevents people from speaking in certain situations.

It is a condition which is on the rise.

The expectation to talk to certain people triggers a freeze response with feelings of panic and talking is impossible.

Five year old Effie was diagnosed with selective mutism during lockdown

Tania says her own mother, Effie's grandmother, had never heard her granddaughter speak.

The youngster's just one of an increasing number of children being diagnosed with selective mutism - a phobia of speaking to certain people.

Left untreated, selective mutism can lead to isolation, low self-esteem and social anxiety disorder. It can continue into adolescence and adulthood if not managed.

Effie's making progress thanks to the support of her family and health professionals

Tania feels lucky she was listened to when she first had concerns.

The family had help from a health visitor and speech therapist and Effie's school has adapted to her needs.

Effie recently started saying a few words at school and has begun having conversations with her grandmother. 

Tania hopes sharing Effie's story will lead to a greater understanding of the condition and help those struggling in silence.

What is Selective Mutism?

  • Selective mutism is a severe 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.

  • A child or adult with selective mutism does not refuse or choose not to speak at certain times, they're literally unable to speak. 

  • The expectation to talk to certain people triggers a freeze response with feelings of panic, like a bad case of stage fright, and talking is impossible.

  • In time, the person will learn to anticipate the situations that provoke this distressing reaction and do all they can to avoid them.

  • However, people with selective mutism are able to speak freely to certain people, such as close family and friends, when nobody else is around to trigger the freeze response. 

  • Selective mutism affects about 1 in 140 young children. It's more common in girls and children who are learning a second language, such as those who've recently migrated from their country of birth.

Learn more about Selective Mutism:

  • iSPEAK: for young people and adults with SM

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and the Association of Speech and Language Therapists in Independent Practice can help you find professionals in your area with experience in treating Selective Mutism.