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Traveling and Vacationing with Selective Mutism

With the summer season upon us, families are planning and orchestrating family vacations. This article focuses on two typical types of travelers, 5 ways to help children cope when away from home, and 10 tips for success at swim clubs, water parks & public beaches.

Typically, there are two types of travelers: Timid Travelers and Talkative Travelers.

The Timid Traveler: Children with SM can become anxious and uncomfortable in a new environment, especially when structure, consistency, routine, and predictability are not in place. 

Timid Travelers can become more withdrawn and clingier, and may act out more often than at home. These are anxious behaviors and parents should realize that their child is acting in such a way from feelings of increased stress.

Since every child is unique, help your child cope with being away from home in the way that serves them best. 

The Talkative Traveler: There are also many children with SM who excel with verbal communication when away from their home environment. When in a different place and surrounded by new people, children with SM may speak in situations that would otherwise elicit mutism in their hometown. It is common for parents to comment that their child was not only speaking on vacation, but was a chatterbox!  

Children with SM are incredibly perceptive and sense when others are expecting them to speak. On vacation, around strangers, and outside of conditioned environments, children with SM may feel less expectation, allowing them to initiate play or speak with others more freely.

Home = More expectations from others
Away = Less expectations from others

Talkative Travelers tend to be less socially anxious than Timid Travelers, but tend to remain minimally communicative within their conditioned home environments due to a high sense of expectation from others. Getting away from the conditioned environment gives them an opportunity to get ‘unstuck’ from their anxieties or behaviors.

For both the Talkative and Timid Traveler, implementing social communication strategies and giving opportunities for exposure throughout the travel experience is highly recommended.

5 Ways to help the child with SM cope with being away from his/her daily routine:

  1. Prepare the child well in advance of traveling. Create a visual daily/weekly itinerary so they know what, when, and where! 
  2. Show the child pictures, photographs, and maps of the destination, as well as websites showing the hotel and planned activities. 
  3. Make a visual list of all the things you will need on your trip, then take your child shopping with you to buy supplies (make this an SM exposure where you use purposeful strategies to help with the progression of communication)
  4. Pack some reminders from home to help the child feel secure (e.g., stuffed animals, a favorite book, a few photos of friends and their home environment).
  5. Preplan purposeful SM exposures based on your child’s stage of social communication (games for younger children and goals for older children) and implement key strategies (parent goals). Examples include:
  • Write down common questions to give to hotel/activity staff to ask your child. Common questions help to minimize your child’s need to think/process and may allow uninhibited responses to come more quickly.
  • Engage strategies such as Frontline (encourage your child to be on the frontline of interaction, rather than the shadow) and Handover/Takeover (encourage your child to hand items to others or take items from others).
  • Ask your child choice/direct questions with visual scripts while checking into the hotel and activities.   
  • Continue with exposures in restaurants, stores, and community locations as you do at home. 
  • Set parent goals for the summer, as you would for during the school year. 

Ten Tips for Success at Swim Clubs, Water parks & Public Beaches

1. Plan and prepare for your outing! 

Children with anxiety do best with predictability where there are few surprises. Preview websites, download maps, and create a daily itinerary!  

 2. Visit during less busy travel times! 

Visit places when there are fewer people and less chaos. This is often at the opening and closing times or early in the morning and later in the afternoon. Then, gradually, adjust the time to travel during more crowded hours. 

3.  Bring a friend or a sibling! 

Children with SM do best when they are not the primary focus of attention. Plus, bringing a friend or sibling helps with distraction, lowering anxiety! 

4.  Sit on the outskirts of the crowds rather in the middle of the crowd. 

Ideally, choose the same location over and over! 

5. Props work wonders!

Props, such as toys, floats, and games are ideal for distracting your child from anxiety. Use objects and games as tools to engage your child in question-asking and answering too! 

6. Stay aware of sensory challenges. 

For children with SM, sensory overload can trigger defensive behaviors where the child may shut down, avoid, or become minimally engaged and communicative. Therefore, be aware of noise levels, overwhelming sights, and overcrowded situations. For children who are sensitive to foods, remember to also bring your child’s favorite food in case options are limited.  

7. Facilitate interaction and communication. 

Often, parents and others expect a child to just jump in and participate. Many children with SM need help engaging and getting comfortable with different settings and people. Help facilitate social communication by leading games/activities or asking choice/direct questions to initiate engagement.  

8. Stay aware of toilet challenges. 

Some children with SM have difficulty using public toilets. Here are some tips: 

  • Locate a single restroom rather than a multi-stalled restroom. This may mean parents need to speak to the manager on duty for special privileges.
  • For younger children, carry portable potty seats. This may help soothe any fear of using adult-sized toilets.
  • For children who fear the loud noise of the toilet flushing, desensitize them to the noise by going in and flushing multiple times. For some children, wearing headphones helps as well!

9. Be vigilant of others forcing speech and communication. 

Ideally, educate family, friends, and relatives. Organize a call and discuss the matter via phone or in person when your child is not present. Avoid this person if he/she continues to pressure your child and let your child know that the person does not understand.

10. Implement social communication strategies based on the child’s baseline stage of social communication!

With every social encounter, there are opportunities to engage, interact and communicate. Practice purposeful exposures! 

  • Use the simple strategies of Frontline and Handover/Takeover. Some examples include asking your child to receive towels or other items from pool staff, hand money to the waiter at the snack bar, or share toys with peers. These strategies work wonders to fuel progress for the minimally communicative child.
  • As the child becomes comfortable and more communicative, prompt the transitional stage of communication, moving from Stage 1 to Stage 2. In this stage, your child can try taping messages on a tape recorder, using parents, siblings, or buddies as verbal intermediaries when asking for the correct number of towels, providing a name upon admission to a park, or asking for a soda at the snack bar. 
  • Read or initiate pre-planned scripts as the child enters into the verbal stage of communication. 

Summer is ideal for more family time and for planning SM exposures to build comfort and help with the progression of communication into speech. Changes in pace and scenery can allow your child to open up in new ways. Remember to have fun and enjoy the process along the way!

Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum  

Founder & Director Emeritus Selective Mutism Association (SMA)
President & Director Selective Mutism Anxiety & Related Disorders Treatment Center 
(SMart Center)
Director Selective Mutism Research Institute (SMRI)
Director SMart Center Counseling & Assessments
Director CommuniCamp