Selective Mutism

What is selective mutism?
IN BRIEF

Selective mutism means being temporarily unable to speak. It can occur only in certain types of situations, in certain places, in certain contexts, or with specific people. Autistic people often experience selective mutism. They don't do it on purpose, it's not a form of protest or rejection of others, it's simply that their ability to express themselves through speech is blocked. You should not try to force the person to speak, nor should you reprimand them.

Selective mutism is characterized by an absence of speech in certain contexts or with certain people. Selective mutism is temporary and not voluntary. Selective mutism is not exclusive to autistic people, but many autistic people have to live with this challenge.

Triggers

Even if the person expresses themselves without difficulty at home and with their family, they may suddenly be unable to speak in certain situations. Every autistic person is unique, and the triggers for selective mutism can vary from one person to another.

Given that understanding and using language appropriately is sometimes complex for autistic people, it’s possible that when faced with a situation interpreted as a risk of social error, the person may lose access to verbal expression altogether, given the social anxiety this can generate.

Attention and concentration disorders

As ADHD is often a disorder associated with autism, difficulties with attention and concentration can make it difficult to participate in activities requiring speech.

Attention

You can't force an autistic person to speak when they are incapable of doing so and you shouldn’t try.

Help and treatment

Selective mutism and its consequences can be reduced, but not eliminated. The autistic person can be guided towards techniques that will help them better manage selective mutism.

Professionals

Depending on the reasons for the mutism, various professionals can be of great help. It’s best if the professional is trained in autism and selective mutism.

Techniques

Several techniques can help manage selective mutism.

Whatever method is chosen, helping to access speech must be done with the utmost respect for the autistic person, at the risk of seeing them suffer when using it, or of amplifying speech-related challenges.

If I suddenly think I perceive a negative emotion in someone, and even more so if I think I'm the cause of it, my speech can become blocked and completely refuse to come out. I know it's there, I know it exists, but it's trapped in a labyrinth of closed doors. My brain completely denies it access. I've also experienced this when faced with an anxiety-provoking situation. One day, I was running in the forest and we came across a small wooden bridge that had no visual cues or elements to keep us from falling, left or right. Not only did I become unable to stand, but my ability to speak disappeared at the same time. It took at least 30 minutes for words to slowly return. This is something that affects my autonomy, my safety and my relationships with others. I'm autistic. That's just the way it is. If people don't put pressure on me, if they accompany me and respect me in this challenge without making a big deal about it, the return to normal will be easier and more positive.

Valérie Jessica Laporte

WRITER SPECIALIZING IN AUTISM (FRENCH)