Karla News

Selective Mutism in the Classroom

Selective Mutism is a disorder that most often reflects children who can talk freely at home but appear frozen in silence at school or in public. More than 90 percent of these children also have social phobia or social anxiety. This disorder is debilitating and painful (emotionally and even physically), often leaving these individuals with a feeling that they have failed to talk, despite their desire to. They tend to feel overwhelmed by a false sense of being judged, falling short of expectations, feeling rejected or ignored. People with Selective Mutism will speak to those they feel most comfortable with, such as their families at home or very close friends.

These students want friends, yet they have a social anxiety about how to go about making that possible, and thus are left feeling lonely and upset. Often, they appear to be relaxed, carefree and will socialize with one or a few children, but are unable to speak and effectively communicate to teachers and most or all peers. It goes beyond being shy and is at the more extreme end of apprehension in social settings. Speaking in a roomful of people feels as though one is public speaking for all to listen to, judge and observe. In reality, however, that may not really be the case.

I found this disability to be extremely fascinating to me and I actually have a lot of compassion and understanding for what these individuals feel. I can very much relate to the symptoms of selective mutism, but I feel I can work though them. Just because I speak or sometimes seem outgoing with people, I often feel a lot of anxiety about conversing with people I do not know very well. It feels like a chore that I must prepare for or recover from, unless they are very laid back, quirky or very friendly with good humor. I have always been reserved and quiet in school settings as a child, but with my friends and family am very outgoing, silly and basically a chatterbox. This leads me to believe that children and adolescents who have SM are basically “letting it all out” when they talk to those they trust. It’s as if a day’s worth of thoughts and comments spill over in release of all that was bundled up inside during their contact with the public.

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Although I am very friendly and talkative one-on-one, I don’t like when others are around and I almost feel like they’re listening to what I say. My chest feels tight and I feel like all eyes and ears are on me. It may appear to be vain to think people actually don’t have better things to do, but it’s just how some people’s minds work. It’s like, although they know that’s not the case, their bodies still act as if it is.

Also, it just feels nice to be alone sometimes to unwind and “recover” until the next task in the day. Often, it takes a very long time to consider someone a friend, and it even seems easier to just stick with the friends one already has then go though the “process” of meeting new people.

I believe that the idea of a “lunch bunch” or a goal to say hello to one person a day are great ideas to get people comfortable with social interactions. Also, gradually becoming more interactive with once-strangers can lead to more comfort and trust with them. I think medication is only meant for the most extreme cases, like those who avidly try to speak but never can get the words out without feeling like they’re about to burst with tension. I think that the best thing a person can go for a child with SM is to have understanding, to never make them talk out loud or punish them for poor participation. Instead, it is best to have them work in pairs with someone they seem comfortable with in a quiet corner, so they can relax and be actively involved.

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I feel like the notion of looking relaxed also holds true for myself, because you don’t want people to know all the tension that is inside. This is not how I feel in all situations however, and I do not believe I have Selective Mutism, but I do seem to have mild anxiety and a keen understanding for how these types of students feel. What I’m noticing most about this Special Needs class, is that all kinds of disabilities have symptoms that the average-every-day person can relate to in some way. This is why it’s all the more important to be compassionate and empathetic for students who struggle with their disability, and for schools to do their best to help each person.