Children suffer with Selective Mutism because the cave men had to have a group in order to be safe from sabre tooth tigers.
If being alone meant that a sabre tooth tiger was going to eat you…
That would mean pain.
And this expectation of pain is what causes anxiety, and in extention, Selective Mutism.
Retrospectively, I have always proclaimed that the main problem of SM sufferers eliciting speech lies in the expectation.
1) Do not let the sufferer feel as though there is an expectation for them to speak.
The expectation to speak produces a ‘freeze response’ (fight or flight response) accompanied with feelings of panic rendering the sufferer to feel physically unable to speak and they make an association between this distressing, panicked feeling provoked each time they perceive they are expected to speak. They may be very talkative and boisterous, however, when they are at home, in a public place (the supermarket etc) or at a friend’s where they sense no expectation to have to speak thereby eliminating their sense of anxiety.
2) Reduce eye-contact as much as you feel is possible.
A sufferer sensing that they are being watched irrefutably adds to their perception of being pressurised to speak and reinforces anxiety doubling the difficulty. As a child, I could almost physically feel the other’s eyes burning into my skull construing my thoughts and sensing my panic (sufferers do not want you to know that they are afraid) with the beleaguering stare (however dulcet the eye contact). They neither perceive as much of an expectation in like manner.
3) Minimalise direct questions.
Again, this will reduce the anxiety and pressure that they perceive. Quite crucially, it may rather be a better bet to end your sentence in ways such as ‘isn’t it?’, ‘Don’t you think?’ and in like manner changing the direct question into a statement by initiating it with for instance ‘I wonder if…’ thereby giving them the opportunity to respond eradicating the ‘deer in headlights’ feeling they may experience.
4) Do not try to trick them into speaking.
Do not use the typical, methodical approaches of attempting to trick them into speaking. They will rebuke these ways, probably begin to distrust you, and it will add to their anxiety levels.
5) Ask unambiguous questions.
When I was about seven years old at school, I can still with fluid transparency envisage the time when the teacher gave the class a question (the question has now escaped me since all these years have elapsed) and asked us to put our hands up if we thought it was the first option. I caught myself lowering my arm when it was a fraction of the way toward the air when I discovered I was the only student who agreed with the first option. A surge of hands erupted into the air for option two (me included) and that always stayed with me. I would, in contrast, answer maths ones in immediacy given that there was only one right answer. If they feel their participation is correct, they will respond (usually verbal or non verbal) and more anxious if they feel their contribution may not be accepted. They do not take risks.
6) Introduce new opportunities.
Since sufferers are able to speak in other environments away from school usually, if financial circumstances would have it, why not ask them if they would like to join a dance or football (soccer) class, learn to play an instrument, join the scouts etc? This way, dependably, they may or may not feel comfortable to intermingle with others since the other children might not know about their mutism and so the sufferer will henceforth perceive no direct expectation from them to speak. Think, too, of the skills they will learn!
7) Accept their stubborn behaviour.
A gargantuan factor in all of this. How extraordinarily frustrating it can be when the switch is flicked and they go into stubborn mode, but the worst way to go about it is by your futile attempts to prevent it. A decade on from my SM induced days, and my stubbornness is still as resentful as it ever once was. The key point to stress here is, the behaviour is deliberate self-protection, and not deliberate opposition. I must highlight absolute that they do not refuse to speak, they physically cannot. I almost felt the physical constriction of my throat closing up given the intensity of the anxiety back at school. When feeling stubborn in other respects (e.g go and tidy your room’, ‘go finish your dinner) and the brow furrows, the nose wrinkles, and their mind is made up, do not shout or express your anger towards them, instead, simply take the approach of understanding them, negotiating, staying calm and respecting them.
8) Keep an extra eye out for teasing and bullying.
They are more vulnerable than other children. Ask their teacher etc to pay them extra attention since owing to their lack of contribution, they can feel left out too. Be sure that they are not being too ‘watched out for’, since this can have a detrimental effect if they sense they are being watched doubling their anxiety in turn.
9) Focus on methods to combat the anxiety, opposed to methods to promote speech.
Self-explanatory, really. Penultimatly, the problem doesn’t necessarily lie in the child speaking, but the anxiety perceived once again.
10) Be patient.
It won’t happen over night. A jug fills drop by drop, Rome wasn’t built in a day… and so forth. Have a little patience and faith, and it will happen.