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What is Selective Mutism?

Selective Mutism (SM) is a situational anxiety disorder which affects both children and adults. The condition generally starts in early childhood but can, if not treated early enough, continue into adulthood. Children and adults with SM are fully capable of speaking, but cannot speak in certain situations because they are too anxious to speak.

A "situation" in which someone with SM cannot speak may be a particular setting, or the presence of a given collection of people or indeed an individual person. The pattern of speech-related anxiety varies depending upon the person's life-experience, but the most common pattern is that the sufferer is a child who cannot speak at school. SM usually begins age 3-5 but is often first noticed when a child begins school. Sometimes SM (either absolute silence or extreme reticence) can last for a child’s entire time at school - until the day they leave at 16 or 18. Generally, but not always, it contributes to academic underachievement, school refusal, and a torrid school life, etc. despite children with SM often being of "above-average intelligence". Other patterns also exist: children and adults with SM may not be able to talk to certain relatives (e.g. grandparents or aunties or uncles etc.) Some children with SM may not be able to talk to their parents or step-parents.

Children and adults with SM do not choose to be silent in the situations in which they cannot speak. They genuinely cannot speak because they are too anxious to speak. Almost all children and adults with Selective Mutism would love to be able to speak in every situation they cannot. The are not making it up, being difficult, antisocial, rude or anything else.

iSpeak's website has forums for young people and adults who are affected by SM, and advice and support for families and professionals.  They can offer face to face or email support. 

Who to contact


Last updated 28/05/2020