April 13, 2005


The Child Who Would Not Speak a Word (HARRIET BROWN, 4/12/05, NY Times)

Christine Stanley will never forget the call. Two weeks after her daughter Emily started kindergarten, the teacher phoned in a panic. Emily would not color, sing or participate in any classroom activities; in fact, she would not say a word to anyone.

It was not the first time Christine had received such a call. Emily had not talked at preschool, either. She did not make eye contact with store clerks or talk to nurses at the pediatrician's office. She ran off the playground if another child approached.

Mrs. Stanley asked her sister, a special education teacher, what she thought. Mrs. Stanley had to explain the problem because at home and with family Emily's behavior was perfectly normal. Her sister mentioned something called selective mutism, but quickly said that couldn't apply to Emily.

"She told me, 'Those children are emotionally disturbed and have been abused,' " Mrs. Stanley recalled. But once she started reading about the condition, she said, "I knew it really was selective mutism."

Experts say that Emily's story is typical of children with selective mutism. At home, they behave like typical children, but in social situations, especially at school, they are silent and withdrawn. They might talk to grandparents but not to other relatives; they might whisper to one other child, or talk to no one. Some do not point, nod or communicate in any other way. [...]

Most researchers now agree that selective mutism is more a result of temperament than of environmental influences. In the early 1990's two studies, one by Dr. Dummit and one by Dr. Black, showed that children with the disorder were not just shy; they were actively anxious. "We ended up concluding that the kids had social anxiety disorder, and the selective mutism was a manifestation of that," Dr. Black said.

Everyone has some level of social anxiety, he noted. "I'm quite comfortable in front of a group," Dr. Black said. "But if I went into a party full of famous older psychiatrists, I might stare at my feet for five minutes before I started talking. It might look like I had selective mutism."

Until recently, the disorder was thought to be extremely rare, affecting about 1 child in 1,000. But a 2002 study in The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry put the incidence of selective mutism closer to 7 children in 1,000, making it almost twice as common as autism.

Selective mutism, experts say, probably represents one end of a spectrum of social anxieties that includes everything from a fear of eating in public to stage fright and agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces.

Despite its prevalence, selective mutism is still widely misunderstood and often ignored. Even after realizing that Emily had the disorder, Mrs. Stanley was not able to get her daughter help. Before Emily started kindergarten, she asked the principal what to do, and was told, "A lot of kids are shy; she'll grow out of it."

Mrs. Stanley recalled, "We figured, O.K., maybe it's not as bad as we think." But two weeks into the year, Emily's kindergarten teacher phoned. "She said, 'Emily can't color or do anything; she just sits there and reads a book,' " Mrs. Stanley said. "She had no clue what to do. And neither did we."

One of the most puzzling aspects of selective mutism is the fact that children stay silent even when the consequences of their silence include shame, social ostracism or even punishment.

The punishment is the best part. You just want to be left alone and the threat they hold over your head is being sent to your room or staying behind to finish your work after everyone else is sent home from school?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 13, 2005 12:56 PM

What teachers do to such kids in the classroom can verge on evil. My wife happend to have a special connection with 4-5 year olds of that temperament.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 2:21 PM

"She said, 'Emily can't color or do anything; she just sits there and reads a book,' " Mrs. Stanley said.

Oh my, that's a sign of emotional disturbance. Get a psychiatrist.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at April 13, 2005 3:05 PM

So if they sit quietly and behave themselves, they get punished. If they are boisterous and outgoing, they get medicated. I think school psychologists must hate kids.

Posted by: Brandon at April 13, 2005 3:08 PM

Has anyone ever heard the story about Einstein - that he supposedly did not speak until he was five?

His first words? "The soup is cold".

His parents asked him why he hadn't said anything prior to this, and he replied "Everything was fine until now".

Posted by: jim hamlen at April 13, 2005 3:15 PM

If they want the children to relax and engage in converation they should serve them cocktails.

Posted by: carter at April 13, 2005 3:26 PM

Thomas Sowell did a book on late-speaking kids, IIRC. Here : The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late

Posted by: joe shropshire at April 13, 2005 3:47 PM


Three cheers for your wife, but what some parents do is just as bad. Mine has the same gift with grades 3-4--a generally acknowledged ability to combine no-nonsense strictness with the hugs and patience they still crave. They adore her, but what astounds and upsets her are the number of modern parents who are bound and determined to find someone to diagnose their kids with some disorder and who won't rest until they find one.

Posted by: Peter B at April 13, 2005 4:23 PM

It's all about the meds...

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 4:27 PM

Meds are the first resort of the relationally incompetent. Most teachers and (yes, Peter B.) parents cannot imagine that an otherwise normal kid might need quiet and solitude. And the notion that such kids might be more observant and intelligent than the adults in the room would simply not compute. This may offend presnt company, but they could really benefit from some Myers-Briggs training.

Posted by: ghostcat at April 13, 2005 4:55 PM

The best teacher I ever had was my 2nd grade teacher.

She had a mini-library in the back of the class, and she put me in the back row and let me read all day.

(If I remember correctly she had a lot of Bellow, tho sadly Ravelstein wasn't published yet.)

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at April 13, 2005 7:28 PM

Presumably if she hadn't had a lot below you'd not have followed her into the closet.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 7:58 PM

Boy Two suffered from this. The daycare people were very concerned about his complete lack of any verbal communication to anyone, which I suppose is understandable. I didn't worry about it because at home you couldn't shut him up. The whole trip to or from daycare would frequently be a non-stop monologue from Boy Two about things he saw, primarily trucks, trains and any construction related objects / activities. I needed only to inject the occasional "wow", "neat", "really?" to keep him going. However, if we had a visitor at home, Boy Two would go mute.

He's doing better now, although he's still very quiet around people he doesn't know. We didn't treat it, just waited for him to grow out of it.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at April 13, 2005 8:29 PM


It'll be no comfort to hear that I've nerarly outgrown it.

Posted by: oj at April 13, 2005 8:36 PM

There was a girl in my elementary school who probably suffered from this problem. Very shy, and would never talk in class. When our fifth grade teacher took a mid-term sebbtical and was replaced by a new teacher, she demanded that the girl both talk and speak up, which usually resulted in her breaking down and crying. Not a real fun situation to be around, even for unsophisticated 11-year-olds.

Posted by: John at April 13, 2005 8:53 PM

Ohmygod. Until I read this Ihad completly forgotten that when I first met OJ (we were about 14), he hardly spoke to anyone like the kid in the article. Of course, he's made up for 1 or 2 quiet years over the last 3 decades.

Posted by: Foos at April 13, 2005 10:56 PM


Was it the meds then or is it the meds now?

Posted by: Peter B at April 14, 2005 2:00 PM

It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 14, 2005 10:44 PM