When I was a child, I was painfully shy. I hid behind my mother, I cried when I had to go to school, I despised P.E. class because I might be required to work with other children. This past year, I had a student who was quite similar to me in this way. He was new to the school and at first the lead teacher in the classroom and myself thought that he just needed some time to warm up to his new environment. The situation did not improve; in fact, by October this student would leave his special classes, only to be found crying in the bathroom. He refused to join an after school musical group, despite his love of singing. One day he ran away from the P.E. teacher and we found him 20 minutes later hiding in the garden. Only after serious efforts were made to develop and nurture several trusting friendships did my little friend venture out of his shell. Luckily, his progress continued to grow and by the end of the year he would speak regularly (although, somewhat timidly at times) in class and played happily with a growing group of peers. For some students, the process of integrating with a group of classmates is much more difficult. Some students are more than just shy or awkward. The students experience an anxiety disorder called Selective Mutism.
A Communication Disorder?
Selective Mutism is a disorder wherein the affected child does not speak in social situations, or situations where there is an expectation that he or she speak and participate, such as school. The student may whisper or not speak at all in these situations, they will have difficulty initiating socialization with their peers, and they may often appear to have a blank or frozen expression. Selective Mutism is considered to be an anxiety disorder as opposed to a communication disorder because the root of the problem is severe social anxiety. It should be noted that some children who have Selective Mutism (SM) do have communication disorders or are bilingual but still, it is anxiety provoked by their communication ability that causes the SM to occur. Some of the other characteristics of SM include:
- Lack of smiling
- Lack of eye contact
- Stiff body language
- Slowness to respond to questions or conversation
- Prone to fears or worrying
- Introspective and/or sensitive personality
- Artistic interests
SM in the Classroom
After reading the list of characteristics that those who suffer from SM might display, it may not come as a surprise that SM often remains undiagnosed and untreated. This is a dangerous prospect for those who do suffer from SM because it is possible that noncommunication might become a way of life for the SM child. Furthermore, socialization can be extremely difficult for students who suffer, unaided, from SM. Also, if stress at school (or in social situations) is not relieved, children with SM may begin to transfer these frustrations to the home where they might begin to act out, throw temper tantrums, develop sleep problems, and more. Due to the fact that school is one of the places wherein SM may become evident, teachers should familiarize themselves with the characteristics of SM, maintain open communication with parents about the diagnosis, and also be accepting of treatment options.
There are many different methods and strategies that are documented for the treatment of SM. These include a psychosocial approach, cognitive-behavioral therapy, medication (used only in extreme cases), and a behavioral approach. The behavioral approach to therapy, for example, includes the gradual reintroduction of the school atmosphere as a safe place. First the parents play or work with the child in the empty classroom until the child feels secure. Then, slowly, one child is introduced and the process repeats in all areas of the school community. Slowly, the teacher and more students are added to the newly safe places until the child is able to communicate freely with a now-familiar group of people. Though therapy for SM is slow, the student emerges with a newfound sense of confidence and empowerment, not to mention a comfortable group of peers with which he or she can socialize. For more information on SM and the numerous treatments for SM, please visit www.selectivemutism.org.
Wikipedian research contributed by Rachel Fries.