January 9, 2021

Here’s what I know about “selective mutism” – the ability to speak at some times but not others. This is based on limited personal experience (a few times a year), plus what I’ve learned from others.

Many advocates with selective mutism seem to dislike the name. It makes it sound like a choice – something to “select” at will. “Situational” mutism is often preferred, since the ability to speak varies by situation. “Intermittent” or “temporary” mutism are also good options, since the ability can vary over time, even across similar situations.

A person may have something to say, and be thinking of the words, but not able to get them out. To empathize with this, imagine being at the dentist with your mouth numb. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it may inspire ways to help them. Writing, sign language, and AAC (apps, charts, or devices with words to choose from) are some common ways.

On the other hand, a person may have something to say, but not be able to think of words for it. To empathize with this, imagine how it feels to be “speechless,” or when a word is “on the tip of your tongue” – you breathe a sigh of relief if someone else figures it out for you. Similarly, asking yes-or-no questions can help you narrow down what a person wants to say, if they can nod (or do a similar either/or movement).

It takes some creativity to come up with questions – and even more to phrase them in a way that can really be answered with yes or no. A common mistake is to ask, “This or that?” without making it clear which thing goes with yes. Another mistake is to ask questions where they may be unsure of the answer, without first checking, “Do you know the answer to this?”

A person may have something to say, with the words to say it, and the ability to say it out loud at that moment – but it would be costly to do so, either causing great stress or interfering with concentration. While this isn’t technically mutism, someone in this state deserves the same level of respect and accommodations.

Even a person diagnosed with selective mutism may have times where they can talk, but find it much easier not to. For this reason, try not to treat a person’s occasional speech as a cause for great celebration, since that may send the message that more challenging forms of expression are morally superior.

In all cases, try to use whatever form of communication creates the smoothest path from thoughts to self-expression.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.