October is now well and truly behind us, and Christmas will soon be upon us. But did you know that each year, October is selective mutism awareness month?
Selective mutism is a reasonably common condition, affecting about one in every 140 children, and an even higher proportion of bilingual children. Children who have selective mutism are unable to speak in some situations, despite being able to speak freely when they feel comfortable and confident. When they are not anxious, they can speak; when they are anxious, they cannot; there is no deliberate ‘choice’ involved. This may sound counter-intuitive but selective mutism is often likened to a phobic response to being heard speaking. If you are phobic of spiders, for example, you can go about your day happily unless you are confronted with a spider. It is the same for children with selective mutism – for many, as long as there is no pressure upon them to speak, they may not ‘present’ as anxious. This means that sadly, many children with selective mutism are misinterpreted as rude, avoidant, or rejecting, or as ‘choosing’ who they will speak to. This is now firmly understood not to be the case; it is the child’s anxiety that causes the differing responses.
When can children with selective mutism speak?
The pattern of when these children can speak is different for every child with selective mutism. Some children are totally silent in school, whilst others can speak to peers, or to a teaching assistant who has built a good relationship, but cannot speak with other adults. A number of children can briefly answer a teacher who asks a direct question, but are unable to initiate any communication. This means they cannot comment, defend themselves, ask for help, request to go to the toilet, and so on. For most children with selective mutism there is other evidence of their anxious style – many cannot eat in school, or use the toilet, for example, for fear of being overheard.
Identifying children with selective mutism
Despite not being a rare condition (most primary schools and almost all secondary schools will have at least one affected student), selective mutism has not attracted much attention over the years compared with, for example, autism, ADHD or dyspraxia.
At One Education we would like to change that, and we have trained our educational psychology team to support schools working with selectively mute children. We are also part of a Manchester multi-agency working party with CAMHS and Speech Therapy, and have drafted a referral pathway and resource pack for Manchester schools which the group hopes to launch early in 2017.
The national charity for selective mutism is the Selective Mutism Information and Research Association (SMIRA) and I was lucky enough to be invited to attend parliament in July of this year as part of a SMIRA-led delegation of awareness-raising. One outcome of this delegation was that Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central and former shadow education secretary, asked a question in parliament about including information about selective mutism in initial teacher training. The reply from Nick Gibb, Schools Minister, on 19 October referred to the new Initial Teacher Training curriculum published in July 2016 and how it makes clear provision for training in speech, language and communication needs, including selective mutism. This fits neatly with the newly published second edition of The Selective Mutism Resource Manual, a ‘bible’ for intervention in selective mutism. The new edition provides advice to schools and families on how to support children both at school and at home, and in the community.
It sounds like things are finally coming together for this group of children who have been overlooked for too long. Without treatment it is hard for people with selective mutism to function independently – how can you go to the doctor, attend a job interview, or manage public transport if you cannot speak to people? We are working hard to ensure these silent voices are heard.
“I wish you could hear all the words I’m too afraid to say”