Situational / Selective Mutism

Selective Mutism (SM) is the difficulty speaking in specific social situations and is an indicator of anxiety. Selective Mutism is not a choice; we may want to speak but are unable to fully and freely do this all the time. It would be much better if we called Selective Mutism ‘Situational’ Mutism, because when we struggle to talk, it depends on the situation and people at that moment (in fact, that is what we will call it throughout the rest of this page). 

I am comfortable speaking at home with my family, but when my mum’s friend comes round I find it a lot harder to talk”

If we become angry, scared or worried, a part of our brain, which I like to call “dino brain”, takes charge and reacts in 1 of 6 different ways to try and protect us and keep us safe. At this time, we are not in control of our behaviour because our brain goes into different survival modes including fight, flight, flood (crying), freeze, fawn (masking) and flop (collapse). When we go ‘mute’ and struggle to talk, this is the ‘freeze’ response. We might usually be really chatty and show our true selves when we are relaxed or just with our favourite people, but when we feel anxious or uncomfortable, we may not be able to communicate as effectively. Anxiety also blocks how we understand and process information, so we might be really good at certain activities sometimes but can struggle doing these same tasks or following the same instructions when we are worried or under pressure. 

Situational Mutism is on a scale and might look different for each person:

      •  You may be unable to talk at all in some situations such as at school or in a group activity. 

      • You may be able to speak when asked by adults, but you may feel the same intense anxiety as someone who becomes unable to speak in some situations. You may be known as ‘shy’ or ‘quiet’, when you are actually very different when you are comfortable. You might try really hard to mask (fawn) your feelings to fit in but can force out some words in a quiet voice, even if this makes you really uncomfortable.

      • Selective mutism doesn’t just make talking tricky. Other things like writing, pointing, sign language or using communication cards can also be difficult to do. Some people may not even be able to nod or shake their head when they are so anxious. 

    Some people think that people who have Situational Mutism are choosing when to speak and when not to, but this is simply not true!

    Young people with SM can be very good talkers when they are happy and relaxed and so you do not need to practice speaking. It is important that the adults around you don’t put pressure on you to talk when you are feeling anxious. It is not you that needs to change but the environment around you so that you can continue feeling happy and safe. 

    It’s like a switch has been clicked and suddenly I cannot speak.

    I can hear everything, I want to talk but I can’t. 

    I don’t know how to fix it.”

    Writing led by Natasha Hallam, SLT at Smalltalk Speech & Language Therapy


    Situational Mutism – Questions and Answers

    Why do I have situational mutism?

    Situational mutism is where your body has a panic response when you try to speak, meaning you are unable to speak, even if you really want to. 

    The most common cause of this in autistic people is stress/ anxiety/ overwhelm. If you are with trusted people and in a safe environment, you may find talking a lot easier than in a place that is loud, or bright, or with people who you do not know well or trust. The higher your level of stress/ anxiety/ overwhelm, the more unsafe your brain feels, and the more likely the “freeze” response will activate. Being in the right environment, with people you trust may make it easier for you to be comfortable communicating.

    Sometimes though, situational mutism is better described as a “fear of the expectation to speak”. It can be a bit like a phobia and even in an environment where you are comfortable, talking can still be really hard. In this case, selective mutism is set off by ‘triggers’, but these triggers are different for each person and there is no choice in what these triggers are (you may not always even know what your own triggers are). Triggers may be a group of people like “teachers” or a specific person like “your aunt”. They can also be places, so you may be able to speak at home or at the park, but not at school.  

    Why can I say some things, but not others when I am stressed?

    Different things you say, write or type have a different “communication load”. This means they take different amounts of brain power to share.

    Things that have a “low” communication load (meaning they are easier to communicate) include: 

      • Answering yes or no to question

      • Questions that have no risk of wrong answers

      • Structured speech (such as reading from a book)

      • Talking in unison with other people

    Things that have a “high” communication load include:

      • Sharing reasons for doing something

      • Sharing opinions or ideas

      • When you are unsure if an answer is acceptable

      • Initiating speech, especially if it is unplanned

      • Speaking to “high status” individuals

      • Talking about emotions 

    Why does situational mutism affect more than just talking?

    Imagine you have a spider phobia. If it becomes really intense, you might become scared of a dark corner of a house in case there is a spider there. If it is even more intense than that, you might be scared of going into any house that looks dark in case there is a dark corner, in case there is a spider in that dark corner! You started with a spider phobia, but this may cause anxiety with going into dark rooms, or going outside because your phobia is so big.

    Situational mutism works in the exact same way. If your anxiety gets too big, it can start to affect a variety of things, from writing, to making choices, to being the centre of attention. Expecting someone with SM to talk when they feel unable to is on the exact same level as throwing a spider in the face of someone who has a spider phobia. It will cause intense anxiety and is likely to make communication harder. It is very important others do not add pressure to speak. 

    What can  help?

    If you are struggling with situational mutism, there are a few things that can help:

    Improving wellbeing 

    If you would like to talk in some environments but are finding it hard to – it could be more important to focus on your wellbeing rather than focusing on talking. When life is hard, it is much more difficult to do some things, including talking. Look at our section on wellbeing for more information around this. 

    Fixing the environment

    There are two important considerations here but you may need the support of a trusted adult to help you communicate to get any changes made:

    1. Making the environment meet your needs as an autistic person. Some examples include:

      • Do your peers understand and accept differences like autism? 

      • Do you have access to tools you might need like fidget tools, a quiet space and ear defenders?

    2. Making the environment a space where it is OK to not talk. Some examples include:

      • Rather than being expected to call your name out in class, can the teacher do the register silently?  

      • Does the teacher give you opportunities to go to the toilet, without you having to ask?

      • If you are comfortable with it, are you able to write down questions on paper or a whiteboard, rather than saying them out loud? 

    Educating people about SM

    One of the most difficult things about SM, is when people want to help but don’t really understand how, so do things that actually make your anxiety worse! Here is a list of tips you could share with the people around you. You don’t have to speak to share the list, you could write it out, refer people to this website page, or ask a trusted friend or adult to share the information on your behalf.:

    Ways you can help me with Situational Mutism

      • Involve me without trying to make me talk. 

      • Keep talking to me, even if I might not talk back.

      • Don’t ask me too many questions. I like it when you show me things or tell me your news.

      • Please invite me to join in with you – I can join in more easily in activities where talking isn’t the main focus or when talking isn’t essential to the activity.

      • If other young people ask questions or make comments about my SM, please tell them about it. Don’t let them think that I can’t speak because I CAN! I just find it difficult sometimes. 

      • Trust that I will speak when I am able to, but please don’t make a fuss or draw attention to me when I do. It is better to carry on as if I have always spoken and just respond to what I say, rather than praising me or acting surprised at the sound of hearing my voice. 

    Learning about anxiety

    Even in the perfect place with people you trust, it may still be hard to speak, even if you really want to. If all of the above has been done, it is important to remember that you may still have some anxiety around speaking. Anxiety is a way our brain responds to keep us safe; sometimes anxiety is normal for the situation but sometimes our brains get mistaken and we can feel anxious when there is no logical threat. You can read more about anxiety here.

    Writing led by Andy Smith, Founder of Spectrum Gaming

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