What Causes Selective Mutism?

Originally called "elective mutism", the name was changed when the research of the 1990s determined that Selective Mutism is a response to a child's anxiety rather than willful election to be mute.

Being expected to speak in certain situations creates intense anxiety. This anxiety begins to be associated with the given situation, and when the child is unable to cope with it, it manifests itself as mutism.

SM is largely a genetic disorder, with over 70% of diagnosed children having immediate family members who either have or have had social phobia or other anxiety disorders.

Selective Mutism is notorious for being misdiagnosed on a regular basis. It is sometimes mistaken for, on the one hand, serious disorders like Autism and, on the other, something as minor as "shyness-which-the-child-will-grow-out-of".

If a child speaks normally when comfortable in his/her surroundings, it is not autism. If concerned parental observation dictates that a selectively silent child is experiencing more than ordinary shyness, get another medical opinion. As the parent, you know your child best.

In addition to the misdiagnoses of autism and shyness, the other great hurdle for the parent of the selectively mute child is the traditional assumption, on the part of some general practitioners and mental health professionals, that the problem is caused by trauma or abuse. While trauma can be the (or one of the) cause of mental illnesses, Selective Mutism often is just genetics at work.  SM is an extreme form of social anxiety with genetic roots.

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