We live in Canberra, Australia, and our daughter is seven and has recently been diagnosed with Selective Mutism. Very few people in our part of the world know about this condition, so we are trying to find out as much as we can in order to educate others. Our question is this: what is the best way to handle situations where our daughter is with us and she is expected to speak e.g. we see a friend down the shops and they ask our daughter a question. As our daughter won’t answer, should we: 1) answer for her; 2) tell them she’s a selective mute in front of her; 3) leave an embarrassing silence (which is usually filled by the other person saying “she’s so shy!!!”). What should we do??
You have asked an excellent but very difficult question. Many aspects need to be considered. First off, how comfortable are you and your child with KNOWING and TALKING about Selective Mutism? Secondly, How anxious is your child? Is she able to respond nonverbally and smile, is she able to whisper words to strangers or is she completely shut down and stands motionless and expressionless. My point here is that depending on your child’s degree of anxiety determines what you can expect from your child.
When involved in treatment, your clinician should be guiding you via goals to help your child MOVE FORWARD and progress. Assessing your child’s anxiety by having her express her fears (rating between 1-5 etc) will enable you and your treating professional to KNOW how your child feels. Here is an example.
Ask your child how she feels when someone asks her a question or says hello to her when in public. Ask her to rate her feelings (there are many methods to do this!). Then discuss with her ways that she can RESPOND without causing her too much anxiety. If she is mute in situations like you are describing to expect her to SAY ‘HI’ will only exacerbate her anxiety. However, perhaps she can HAND A NOTE to a stranger or WAVE without FEELING too anxious. Use her FEELINGS of anxiety as a gauge. As she waves or hands a note, reward her then ask her how she FELT about this. In a short time, she will feel less and less anxious and be able to do more and more! Your treating professional should be able to help you progress throughout various stages of communication.
Regarding what to say to others? Again, this depends on your comfort with saying your child is anxious and has SM. Depending on how ANXIOUS your child is determines what you say, but if your child is the typical SM child who is MUTE and often just ‘stares’ or looks away, you can say something like: ‘ My child sometimes has a tough time responding (or speaking to) people he just meets or does not know that well.’ Or you can say, ‘ My child has a tough time answering, but he certainly can wave well!…etc etc…bottom line, is you need to answer and respond as you feel comfortable.
The SMA~CAN also has wallet cards available that can be given to people to help them understand.
Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum