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Michael was always a shy kid, but he stopped speaking altogether when he started daycare. Why?

Michael, my nephew, has always been a shy kid around strangers. The youngest of six, his mother had a tubal ligation the day after he was born. His parents and siblings treated him as the baby of the family — literally calling him "baby" until he was at least three years old, carrying him about, and striving to meet his every wish. He was the last, after all, and they were going to savor every moment of his babyhood. Within the family, he was a chatterbox, but he'd hide behind his mother when in the company of people he didn't know well, and said nothing at all. This, too, was attributed to him being the baby of the family.

"Olivia, I'm scared of those people," he told me when I found him rocking back and forth in my bedroom on the day I invited some friends who had a boy his age over in the hope he could have a friend outside of the family. When he started daycare, Michael's carer was concerned. Not only didn't he speak at all, to anyone, on the first day, he didn't speak the day after either. Or the day after that. Then, he stopped speaking to me, and to his grandparents, and even to his parents and siblings, for longer and longer stretches of time. A little philosopher, he'd give insightful comments when he did speak: "Mommy, the words are stuck in my throat."

Michael didn't give people the "silent treatment" because he was unwilling to speak. He stopped speaking because he couldn't speak. Michael, as it turned out, had selective mutism.

What Is Selective Mutism?

Selective mutism is a complex childhood communication disorder, linked to anxiety in children. While it usually occurs during childhood, it can indeed affect some adults as well. People with selective mutism find themselves unable to speak in particular social situations — commonly at school or daycare — while usually being fully able to effectively communicate in settings with which they are comfortable, like at home within their own family.

Selective mutism is described in the DSM-5, the fith edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the US' comprehensive diagnostic guide for mental disorders, as having the following symptoms: 
  • An inability to speak in particular social situations.
  • The inability to speak in those settings lasts for longer than one month — it isn't simply due to being scared of a new setting.
  • The inability to speak isn't due to speaking a second language, a communication disorder like stuttering, or something that occurs within the context of another diagnosed disorder that can interfere with speech, such as autism.
  • The inability to speak is detrimental to achievement or communication.

Closely linked with social anxiety disorder, selective mutism will often coincide with anxiety, being painfully shy, and fearing social embarrassment or judgment. Selective mutism, like almost any other disorder, exists on a spectrum that ranges from mild to severe. Some children who are selectively mute are able to speak to those peers at school they are comfortable with, for instance, while others don't. At the severe end of the spectrum, as we saw with Michael, kids will stop talking to close relatives as well. 

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