Situational Mutism

Situational Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterised by a child’s inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school.

Children with situational mutism are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed. It's also common for children with situational mutism to have social phobia or social anxiety which is obviously debilitating and painful.

Children and adolescents with situational mutism have an actual fear of speaking and of social interactions where there is an expectation to speak and communicate.

Many children have great difficulty responding or initiating communication in a nonverbal manner; therefore, social engagement may be compromised in many children when confronted by others or in an overwhelming setting where they sense a feeling of expectation.

This has traditionally been called 'selective mutism' however that terminology assumes the person has a choice, which may not be the case.

The Autistic community is working to have the terminology amended and updated.

  • Some may be completely mute and unable to speak or communicate to anyone in a social setting; others may be able to speak to a select few or perhaps whisper.

  • Some children may stand motionless with fear as they are confronted with specific social settings; others may freeze, be expressionless, unemotional and may be socially isolated.

Less severely affected children may look relaxed and carefree, and are able to socialise with one or a few children but are unable to speak and effectively communicate to teachers or most/all peers.

Some children with Situational Mutism have Sensory Processing challenges which means they have difficulty modulating sensory input which may affect their emotional responses.

Sensory Processing challenges may cause a child to misinterpret environmental and social cues and lead to inflexibility, frustration and anxiety.

The anxiety experienced may cause a child to shutdown, avoid and withdraw from a situation, or it may cause them to act out, or display challenging behaviours.