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What is Selective Mutism (SM)?

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Selective mutism (SM), formerly called elective mutism, is defined as a disorder of childhood characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings (e.g. at school, in public places) despite speaking in other settings (e.g. at home with family). SM is associated with anxiety and may be an extreme form of social phobia according to researchers and clinicians who are familiar with the disorder (Black & Uhde, 1995; Dow et al., 1995, Dummit et al., 1997, Kristensen, 2001; Leonard & Dow, 1995).

The fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, referred to by clinicians as the DSM-IV, (APA,1994) recognized that the social anxiety and avoidance characteristic of social phobia may be associated with SM, and thus, both diagnoses may be given. More than 90% of children with SM also meet the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety disorder, now termed social phobia (Black et al., 1996).

Diagnosis of other comorbid anxiety disorders are also commonly diagnosed with SM and social phobia (Biedel & Turner, 1998). The name change from "elective" to "selective mutism" in DSM-IV deemphasized the oppositional behavior connotation that a child elected not to speak and rather emphasized the characteristic of the disorder, that there are select environments in which speaking does not occur (APA, 1994). The term selective mutism is consistent with new etiological theories that focus on anxiety issues (Dow et al., 1995).

The current edition, DSM-IV-TR (APA, 2000) states that the following criteria must be met in order to qualify for a diagnosis of selective mutism:

An inability to speak in at least one specific social situation where speaking is expected (e.g., at school) despite speaking in other situations (e.g., at home); The disturbance has interfered with educational or occupational achievement or with social communication; The duration of the selective mutism is at least one month and is not limited to the first month of school; The inability to speak is not due to to a lack of knowledge of or discomfort with the primary language required in the social situation; and, The disturbance cannot better be accounted for by a communication disorder (e.g. stuttering) and does not occur exclusively during the course of a pervasive developmental disorder, schizophrenia or other psychotic disorder.

Consistent with current research, SMG believes that Selective Mutism is best understood as a childhood social communication anxiety disorder. SM is much more than shyness and most likely on the spectrum of social phobia and related anxiety disorders. SM is NOT a child willfully refusing to speak.

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