The Talbot Centre

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Situational Mutism (Selective Mustism)

Situational mutism

Sam is 4 years old and attends his local preschool.

Despite having a cheeky, assertive personality at home with his parents and some extended family members, he is unable to speak to the preschool staff and most of his peers. He sometimes nods his head if asked simple questions but is unable to join in play with his friends. He is also unable to use the bathroom at preschool and in public places. His parents are concerned that he will not develop close friendships and are saddened that others don’t get to experience his true personality.

Sally is 10 years old and attends her local primary school.

She has always been a shy child and despite speaking normally with her preschool teachers Sally has had difficulty speaking to school staff since Grade 1. Sally has a couple of close friends whom she can speak to at school, but will stop speaking if she thinks anyone else, such as her teacher, may be listening. She has difficulty participating in group work tasks and is unable to ask questions to facilitate her learning.

Sally-is-10-years

Does your child or student:

Only speak to a select subgroup of people (e.g., one friend at school but not their teacher or other peers)?
Speak to peers but not adults?
Whisper to various people but not use normal voice?
Answer questions but not initiate speech?
Become clingy to parents in social situations and not play with others?
Use only nonverbal communication when in public?
Become silent even with familiar speaking partners in highly stressful situations?
Freeze when a teacher or other adult speaks to them?
Have a vibrant personality at home but shrink into their shell when at school or in other public places?

If any of the above describes the difficulties your child is facing then therapy can assist your child to develop the confidence to let their authentic self shine.

What is Situational Mutism?

Situational Mutism is condition where children experience anxiety about communicating with others. Commonly, children speak comfortably with their parents and siblings and with some other familiar people, but feel anxious about communicating with teachers and peers at school and in other public environments.

Situational Mutism is a more extreme form of social anxiety where children are worried that others will hear their voice and make negative judgements about them or respond in another negative way e.g., by getting overly excited or making a “big deal” out of their speaking.

You may have heard the term Selective Mutism, which is currently the formal diagnostic term for communication related anxiety. At The Talbot Centre, we choose to use Situational Mutism as this term is preferred by those with lived experience. Situational Mutism emphasizes the role of external factors and contexts in communication challenges, rather than implying selectivity or willful avoidance on the part of the individual.

What if my child is just shy – won’t they grow out of it?

Extreme shyness is similar to Situational Mutism and can be thought of as a less severe form of social anxiety. Although shy children are usually able to provide some response when communicating with familiar people, children with Situational Mutism are often unable to respond verbally at all, sometimes even in situations where they have been seriously injured and need assistance.

While some children may start speaking to new adults or peers spontaneously this is relatively uncommon and these children tend to continue to feel anxious in certain social situations such as when speaking in front of the class or in situations where they may need to be assertive.

Selective Mutism

The skills taught to children and parents to develop confident communication are beneficial for all children who experience anxiety, whether they have started to speak more freely already or need some additional assistance to get started.

Early intervention can prevent your child’s anxious coping behaviours (e.g., not speaking when anxious) from becoming firmly established and therefore more difficult to treat long term. It also provides opportunities for you and your child to learn skills to develop confident communication prior to starting school.

With help from a psychologist your child can learn to communicate without fear

It’s never too late.

We have assisted teenagers even in their late teens to improve their confidence in communicating with others and to improve their academic engagement, friendships and quality of life as a result. It is normal to feel discouraged or stuck if symptoms of Situational Mutism have persisted over many years.

If you would like to discuss how our psychologists might be able to support you or your child in communicating confidently in a wide range of settings please get in touch and speak with one of our client care team members.

Benefits of working with a psychologist

Therapy can assist your child in a number of ways including:
  • improving their understanding of anxiety
  • assisting them to develop confidence in communicating with others
  • teaching them skills for managing anxiety both now and in the future
  • improving overall self confidence and self esteem
  • helping them to manage co-occurring issues such as other fears or behavioural difficulties
Therapy can also assist parents and teachers to:
  • understand more about anxiety and Situational Mutism
  • learn strategies to assist their child/student to face their fears and improve their confidence
  • develop confidence in explaining Situational Mutism to friends, school staff and family members
  • explore their own anxiety about the impact of Situational Mutism on their child
Benefits of working with a psychologist
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Over 100 families and schools have supported the development of confident communicators with our guidance and assistance.

Dr Amy Talbot, clinical psychologist and director of The Talbot Centre​
Dr Amy Talbot trained and worked at the Selective Mutism Clinic in Sydney for a number of years and has helped families and schools (both local and throughout Australia) to support their children or students to overcome their anxiety and communicate with confidence. Dr Amy Talbot is highly experienced in treating Situational Mutism and is an invited lecturer at postgraduate clinical training programs, teaching the psychologists of tomorrow how to best support children with Situational Mutism to face their fears and improve their engagement in all areas of their life. All of our child and family clinicians have been trained personally by Dr Talbot in working in an affirming and evidence based way to support children and young people with Situational Mutism to be able to participate fully in their environments.

Therapy for Situational Mutism can assist your child to develop the confidence they need to participate fully in life.

We are passionate about ensuring that every family has access to the best treatment available to develop their child’s confidence with communicating. Our services are available to families both within Sydney and throughout Australia.

Many of our families have seen their child develop increased confidence about communicating without ever having to attend a face to face session!

If you live outside of Sydney and would like to access our services please contact us to discuss options for phone or video consultation.

Child develop increased confidence

What does therapy involve?

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has been shown to be the most effective treatment for Situational Mutism. Read more about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Situational Mutism involves:
  • Assisting children to face their fears about speaking in a gradual way by setting goals to practice increasingly difficult communication tasks
  • Assisting children to challenge their worrying thoughts about what will happen if they communicate with others (e.g., they will think my voice sounds funny or they will tell everyone that I spoke)
  • Teaching parents and teachers skills to support children to become confident communicators.
  • Working closely with teachers and schools to assist children to make progress in the school environment, where the mutism is most likely at it’s worst.
Treatment for Situational Mutism for autistic children may differ from that described above. For example, Situational Mutism for autistic individuals may be associated with differences in communication preferences rather than a way of coping with anxiety. The Talbot Centre respects individual differences in communication preferences and will engage with you and your child to develop a You-centred care plan that directly aligns with your individual goals and needs. This may involve the inclusion of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). AAC refers to various methods, tools, and strategies used to supplement or replace spoken language for individuals with communication differences. These may include visual aids, gestures, sign language, communication boards, electronic devices, or specialized software that help individuals express themselves, interact with others effectively and get their needs met.

How do I make an appointment or access more information?

The Talbot Centre is a contemporary health service focussed on providing integrated health care programs. Our speech pathologists work in collaboration with other professionals as part of a multidisciplinary team providing patient-centred care.

Make an appointment. Ready to get started?

You can also find more information about Situational Mutism at the Selective Mutism Center. There is also an Australian Facebook group for families of children with SM and other interested parties.