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What is selective mutism and is it for real?

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What is selective mutism and is it for real?

Asked by Vikki de Melendez of Clifton Park, New York

Selective mutism (SM) is a well-established psychological disorder. It is a social anxiety condition in which a person is capable of speech only with a very few people and only in a very few situations.

Many have thought SM is not genuine because the SM sufferer is fully capable of speech. The unsympathetic often believe the SM sufferer is faking the speechlessness. But they can and do speak when the people around them and the occasion itself is "safe" for them. Perhaps that person may be a parent, a sibling, or a partner. Perhaps they will only speak inside their own home and nowhere else.

A convenient way to think of SM is to imagine someone with a phobia of, say, lightning (astraphobia) and thunder (brontophobia). They are perfectly fine in fine weather, but comes a storm and they collapse into panic.

Five factors characterise SM. There is:

  1. Consistent failure to speak in specific social situations in which there is an expectation of speaking. It is often first detected when the child is in school.
  2. An interference with educational and occupational achievement.
  3. The duration must last more than one month.
  4. Failure to speak is unrelated to lack of knowledge of or comfort with the language to be spoken.
  5. Another communicative disorder (such as stuttering) is not present.

The diagnosis of SM has been around for more than 100 years. It was known by its earlier name, elective mutism. SM is relatively rare. Between one and seven per 1,000 people suffer from SM. Slightly more females suffer from it than males. No single cause has so far been found to account for SM.

Drs William Sharp and colleagues from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and the DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware write in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders(30 August 2006) that: "Although well documented, SM is still not clearly understood, and debate continues regarding its classification and etiology."

They add that in the past and sometimes even today, an SM sufferer was dismissed as merely being defiant, manipulative, dominating, negative, stubborn, aggressive, or a combination of these.

major myth surrounding SM is that the sufferer chooses to whom they speak, and where, and when. Not so, say researchers - and they say it to one and all.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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