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What is Selective Mutism in Adults?

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Last updated on December 2, 2019

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Selective Mutism is a condition that most commonly affects children aged 3 onward and if treated properly the condition is often sufficiently dealt with by the time they reach adulthood. In rare cases, though, Selective Mutism remains a problem well into adulthood causing a lot of social strain and anxiety for the sufferer.

If you are looking for information about Selective Mutism in children, read this article: What is Selective Mutism in Children? by AnxietyPanda 🙂

As a cub, AnxietyPanda suffered from selective mutism. It was an extremely confusing and embarrassing period as few people really understood what was going on and AnxietyPanda was unable to express herself.

As a grownup bear, AnxietyPanda has luckily outgrown much of the symptoms. There are still rare occasions that trigger it now and then, but they are few, luckily, although often equally embarrassing and even frustrating sometimes when people say that you are only pretending… Or they say to you: “Why are you so quiet? Are you angry? Are you okay?” Ugghhhh.

What is Selective Mutism In Adults – A Quick Overview

Studies around this condition are vague and some have claimed it to be an extreme case of social anxiety where others have even claimed a link to autism or obsessive-compulsive disorder. AnxietyPanda sees it as a sort of speech phobia. You can talk and will talk if you’re comfortable, but certain situations or people may trigger this phobia and you just can’t speak.

Selective Mutism usually starts during early childhood and if left untreated can lead to having this condition throughout adulthood as well. This is quite a problem if you consider the fact that most careers involve speaking to a client, colleague or supplier perhaps.

In the 1930s the condition was referred to as “Elective Mutism” in reference to the fact that physicians believed that the patient chose not to spoke, rather than was incapable of speech due to fear.

The newer term, Selective Mutism, suits the condition far better in the sense that the sufferer does not have a choice in when they can and cannot speak and it is the popular term that is used for the condition today.

Myths about Selective Mutism

With all the mystery surrounding Selective Mutism, let’s go ahead and bust a few myths about this condition.

Myth! Selective Mutism Only Affects Children

As you have seen from the contents of this article, the statement that Selective Mutism only affects children is an absolute myth. Although more prominent in children, if left untreated it can easily transition into adulthood as well.

Even with sufficient treatment, Selective Mutism may still poke out its head under certain circumstances during adulthood, but it will be much more manageable.

Some famous adult fictional characters with Selective Mutism includes Raj Kuthrapali from The Big Bang Theory and Effy Stonem from Skins.

Myth! Selective Mutism is Caused by Childhood Abuse or Trauma

Many people believe that a child had to have experienced some sort of traumatic event during their childhood and that is the reason causing them to not be able to talk. This is simply not true.

Although shock from traumatic events may cause someone to lose their speech for a while, due to the stress, the rates of trauma in children with this condition are the same as the rates of trauma in children without the condition.

Myth! Selective Mutism Occurs Only in Educational Settings

This is a common misconception due to the fact that the condition is mostly recognized for the first time when a child enters new unfamiliar territories like going to school. Children with Selective Mutism will be able to hold perfectly normal conversations and keep eye contact with the people they know and are comfortable with, like family.

It usually onsets from about age 3 onward, and this is the period that the child spends mostly with people they know, so school is an obvious and commonplace for it to show its face, hence the misconception. But, it could just as well have been at another setting like at a festival or other public space where they must interact with others.

Selective Mutism is not brought on by an environment, but rather by a specific person or persons.

Myth! Selective Mutism is a Choice, Not a Reaction

Please, please, please always remember that the person suffering from Selective Mutism really does want to speak with you. They are really physically unable to do this, no matter how they try. It is a strong mental block and certainly not a choice. Mostly, people with Selective Mutism would love to be able to say something.

It is incredibly disrespectful and hurtful to accuse the person of being stubborn and choosing not to talk. It’s frustrating to the sufferer as well because you are misunderstanding them and they are unable to express themselves to you.

Myth! Selective Mutism Can’t Cause any Long-term Problems

Wrong. It is extremely important to diagnose and treat this condition as soon as possible, as treatment becomes a lot more difficult the longer a child has this condition. Although the severity of the condition will slowly reduce with age, if left untreated into adulthood, it may cause them to have problems with their career and social life. It could also lead to Chronic Depression, Social Anxiety and other emotional problems.

Selective Mutism is not the same as shyness. Shyness can be overcome with time and is part of someone’s personality. Selective Mutism is a mental disorder that physically disables the sufferer due to a fear of speaking. They are afraid of embarrassment or judgment and sometimes can’t think of ANYTHING to say, even though they would love to speak with you.

Overcoming Adult Selective Mutism

Fortunately, it is possible to overcome your adult Selective Mutism, although you will still encounter episodes and repercussions of not having treated it sooner. But, there are ways for you to cope with and manage this condition in order to live a functional life.

Stimulus Fading Technique

Start by interacting and speaking with the person in your life that you feel the most comfortable with. Then, one by one, bring in more people to join the conversation.

As mentioned, start with the person you feel most comfortable with and gradually progress down the line to the person you feel least comfortable with or a stranger. The idea is that you will feel more comfortable in the presence of someone you trust, and your feelings of uncomfortableness with the other people will eventually fade away because you feel secure with the person that you trust.

Systematic Desensitization Technique

This exercise will take place entirely in your mind.

Start by imagining yourself in the situation that causes you to not be able to speak. Now, imagine yourself trying to speak with the people in the scenario using written communication such as emails, text, online or such. Then progress to interactions such as a phone conversation or video call. Finally, imagine yourself interacting and speaking directly to the persons involved. The idea is that gradual exposure to the anxiety-causing situations will help the sufferer become desensitized to the fear.

Practice, practice, practice

As with anything, practice makes perfect.

You can practice by trying to whisper at a social engagement, and practice to gradually increase your volume to speaking level.

Practice positive thinking and affirmations, such as: ” I can talk. It is possible for me to talk” “My voice is just as important to be heard.” “I approve of myself. My thoughts are valid.”

Professional Help & Support Groups

For severe cases of Selective Mutism, the above-mentioned techniques may not be sufficient to overcome this condition. In such cases, it is important to seek professional help from a physician with experience in Selective Mutism. A combination of the above techniques and the use of medications may be prescribed. Other treatments include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Shaping, and Graded Exposure techniques.

The effectiveness of any treatment will depend on how long you have been suffering from the condition and the co-operation of the people that are close to you and are involved in your life.

You can find information and support groups online, such as these ones on Facebook, SM Space Cafe and Support Selective Mutism.  Other websites with valuable information, resources, and support include Finding Our Voices, iSpeak., Selective Mutism Association, and SM Journal (Japanese Forum).

Realizing that you have selective mutism and recognizing the situations and persons that cause to trigger the symptoms, is the first step in regaining your freedom. Don’t feel ashamed of this condition, many adults are suffering from this. The sooner you get treatment the sooner you will be able to live your life and reach your full potential.

Feel free to leave us a comment and share your experiences as an adult with selective mutism.

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  1. Kayla Kayla

    Hello! I was diagnosed with selective mutism at a young age and had some treatments. I’ve noticed through into adulthood I have struggled with it as well though. My experiences are different than what I’ve read and have been reading. I have more trouble in a one-on-one setting with a tough conversation and topic and have certain triggers. I don’t always see the triggers though. I am just curious to know if anyone else has had any of the same kind of experiences.

  2. mama bear shirt

    Absolutely composed subject material , Really enjoyed studying.

  3. Daniella Daniella

    HI there,

    Awesome article! I really enjoyed the reading!

    I didn’t know what is selective mutism until I read your article. And the funny thing is that I suffer from selective mutism since my youth. I am always a shame to speak front a group of people. If there are more than three people in a room, I find it very hard to express myself. I always thought it would disappear with age, but, it didn’t. I will take a look on Facebook. Just a question, please. Are there several levels of selective mutism?

    Thank you for this excellent post! 

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Yes, there are certainly levels to Selective Mutism. Some high functioning Selective Mutism individuals manage to speak in a whisper and eventually learn to overcome their inability to speak. Others, lower on the spectrum may remain mute and stricken with fear in most unknown situations.

      Hope you get the support you need!

  4. Christine Christine

    I have seen adults with selective mutism who are trying very hard to speak, when they are with a group of people. As you mentioned in your article, they are more comfortable speaking to someone they know.

    When we meet someone with selective mutism, we should be patience and help them to speak out. It would be helpful to seek professional help and treatment.

    Thank you for providing so much information about selective mutism.

    These information will help many people to have better understanding of adults or children who suffer from selective mutism.

  5. Mark Mark

    This is something that I have never come across, but I can imagine how certain circumstances could lead to someone not being able to talk. I find that the advice you provide seems to be both helpful and understanding of their situation. I am no expert on this, but could it not be the case that sometimes the person just doesn’t want to talk. I have had occasions where I can’t find words to describe something, or I am not interested in talking to someone. In these cases, they have not this condition. How do you distinguish between choice and when it is out of the person’s control?

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Good question, Mark!

      For people with Selective Mutism, it really isn’t a choice. They truly want to speak but are too afraid to. They may be able to speak normaly to people they are close with, but almost always lose their ability to speak around strangers.

      The person just being stubborn and choosing not to talk will display normal conversational behavior under most circumstances except those instances where they choose not to talk.

  6. Daniel Daniel

    This is great post. I must say that I had a similar problem two years ago and luckily I solved it but just like you mentioned, it is possible only with practice. I am a person who like to speak very much but in some situations, my voice was disappearing. Do you think that consuming pills against it is worth?

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      AnxietyPanda recommends medication as a last resort and only for severe cases 🙂 It is best to follow the advice of your physician, though!

  7. Bibian Bibian

    I notice that this is a highly sensitive condition many people don’t know about. It is something to be made ware of even in the schools.  As you said people may take it that the person doesn’t want to speak to them, what a sad experience. But I still think that environment where a person grow and how a person is handled or not allowed to speak his/her mind might make the person unsocial, is that not mutism?

    Thanks for sharing this very important post.

  8. tim tim

    I’ve never hear of Selective Mutism…and the name at first glance is a bit confusing as it seems to indicate a person who show signs “selects” not to speak.  You clarified this very well.

    When I hear about this condition I automatically think of Glossophobia…or speech anxiety which is the fear public speaking.  This sounds completely different in that you just can’t speak with Selective Mutism.  Thanks for shedding the light on this topic…I can’t help but think catching this in a young child would be crucial to get some help as quick as possible.

    • Hank Hank

      Very insightful, Tim. I am 66 yrs. Old. Had it terribly when I was a child. I was deemed genious in grade school tests but the anxiety of this disability has dogged me most of my life.

  9. Emmanuel Buysse Emmanuel Buysse

    Great post and this contains good info to let people understand about this problem.

    Yes, selective mutism is commonly founded by young childs and also people who suffered traumas, but it isn’t always the case, sometimes you are born with it, and people think you are strange.

    It is actually them that are strange and their ignorance is the bad habit humanity has.

    I will share this and hope it will come to these people minds that sometimes nothing has to happen or it also can be found in adults to get it, or already have it!

    • AnxietyPanda AnxietyPanda

      Thanks, Emmanuel, we appreciate the share! The more people become aware of this condition, the quicker people with Selective Mutism can be helped and understood . 

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