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When Kids Stop Talking

What you need to know about selective mutism

Published on: March 21, 2018

little girl looking reluctant

Sarah walked out of her preschool class and tears sprung from her eyes.

“Mommy,” she said, “I wanted to talk to the teacher, but I couldn’t!” 

I picked her up and said, “Well, let’s go talk to her now.”

Back in the classroom I told Sarah she could say whatever she wanted to say. Instead, she froze, looked straight ahead and gave no response.

Back at home, she said that her words get stuck.

“Do they get stuck here?” I said, pointing to her head. “No, here,” she replied as she pointed to her mouth. I hugged her tight, looked in her eyes and promised that mommy was going to help her get her words out.

I had no idea what to do.

After four full months of preschool, Sarah had not spoken a single word to the teacher or any of the children at school, while at home she was articulate and boisterous in two languages. Her teacher did some research online and sent us to a page on selective mutism (SM). We read the criteria listed and were shocked to see that Sarah met almost all of them.

Her extreme anxiety prevented her from speaking even when she really wanted to. Simply put, she was panicked into silence. And she wasn't alone. According to Dr. Stephen Kurtz, an internationally known expert in the field, 1 in 144 children have some form of SM.

This started a two-year journey to find someone who could help our daughter. We heard from four different psychologists about things like shaping, behavioral therapy and stimulus fading, but no one could tell us how to do them in the school environment or anywhere else.

Even looking at the evidence, I found it hard to admit Sarah had a problem. “She is only 3,” I told myself. Sarah turned 4 and made some small breakthroughs that buttressed my denial. “She will talk when she wants to,” I thought, and there were plenty of people telling me the exact same thing. But, behind my denial, I knew there was a problem.

In October of her kindergarten year, we had her officially diagnosed with SM, and began to work with the school to put accommodations in place for our girl who couldn’t talk.

Then, a breakthrough.

A friend emailed an article about a girl who was “cured” of selective mutism. I followed the links to the Child Mind Institute (CMI) in Manhattan and learned about its Brave Buddies program.

With just two weeks notice, I flew with my daughter and 3-year-old son to Manhattan in the middle of winter.

After a brief intake, Dr. Rachel Busman put me in a room with Sarah and proceeded to tell me from behind a one-way mirror what to say and what to do. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was beginning to train me in evidence-based techniques for helping children with SM. It was desensitization, shaping, behavioral therapy — all in real time, and it was working. Sarah was responding to questions, she was talking to people.

Wanting to ride the momentum, I sent information to Sarah’s school and began preparing her teacher, principal and counselor on how to speak to her before we ever landed back in Seattle. I had a meeting scheduled with them before her first day back at school to model the proper techniques. It went very well and they all heard her voice for the very first time that morning.

Once, I praised Sarah for talking to some children and she said, “Well, I know how to do it now because I’ve been to talking camp.”

That trip to New York was nearly four years ago. Talking to people is still not easy for Sarah, but she can now more clearly articulate what is happening.

“I don’t have too much trouble talking to kids or teachers I know, but it’s harder with other adults,” she says.

She is participating more consciously in her recovery and we use more “natural environments” for exposure such as being a library helper or reading to kindergarteners. Most importantly, she says she “loves school now.”

If you suspect your child has SM, look for a treatment provider on the Selective Mutism Association website. It can be effectively treated and overcome with the right evidence-based treatments. Children shouldn’t have to live in terror of speaking. Let’s spread the word and stop the silence.

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