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February 25, 2016 12:32 PM   Subscribe

Girl won't talk at all. What gives?

My friend told me today that his 6-year-old daughter hasn't said a single word at school since September. She won't say anything to teachers or to friends. But she gladly interacts with them using hand gestures.

The school is totally baffled, and even the psychologist my friend and his wife have taken her to apparently has no idea what is going on. It's puzzling because the girl is bright, seemingly happy, expressive with her parents (she speaks three languages, and they don't feel she has any kind of English deficit that would explain the problem). and she does talk to the neighborhood children. He said if I brought my daughter over to play with his daughter, his daughter would show my daughter her toys and interact with her using hand gestures but would not talk to her.

He and his wife have tried to ask her what's going on but she just says things like "maybe I'll talk when I get to high school".

My friend thinks on the one hand it might be best to just let some time go by and see if the situation resolves on its own (a la "it's just a stage and it will pass"), but he's obviously concerned about it since it seems quite extreme and inconsistent with anything else about his daughter.

Has anyone encountered or heard of such a situation before and have some ideas I can pass along to my friend?

Thank you.
posted by Dansaman to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's definitely a thing, sometimes called selective mutism (see e.g. here).
posted by cogitron at 12:38 PM on February 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Selective Mutism - something worth researching.
posted by Sassyfras at 12:38 PM on February 25, 2016

I believe the term you are looking for is "selective mutism". It has its roots in anxiety. Here are a couple of links that describe it. Link 1 Link 2

Basically, treatment centers on addressing the anxiety and extending the range of the comfortable environments in which the child can function normally.
posted by telepanda at 12:40 PM on February 25, 2016

If her psychologist hasn't heard of selective mutism, it's time for a new psychologist.
posted by thatone at 12:41 PM on February 25, 2016 [58 favorites]

In no way am I saying this is the answer, but in my experience as a special educator, this is often called anxiety-based selective mutism:

Selective Mutism is a complex childhood anxiety disorder characterized by a child's inability to speak and communicate effectively in select social settings, such as school. These children are able to speak and communicate in settings where they are comfortable, secure, and relaxed.

If the parents or school suspect this is the issue, then it will help to have her assessed and diagnosed by a competent psychologist. Selective mutism is not well understood and there can be well-intended interventions put into place that can actually increase the child's anxiety.

I would have her assessed and go from there. In the meanwhile, school staff should remove all pressure for her to speak, possibly providing her with alternate communication methods (pointing to visuals, using an iPad program; there are a lot of different ways to communicate other than actually speaking).
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:43 PM on February 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have interacted in a different forum with the parent of a child who has selective mutism. The parent typically recommends this book. The parent has also said that the thing that helps the child most at the beginning of a new school year is they arrange with the school to have the teachers come and visit their house a few times so that the child can meet them in a situation that they are able to talk in. They also make extra visits to the new classroom at the beginning of the year so the child can become more familiar with the environment. This process has allowed the child to become able to talk at school.

They have done a lot of work outside school with very gently pushing their child's boundaries - bring a new adult over when the child is at home and playing a fun game. Now try it outside. Now try going to the park.

The parent has emphasized repeatedly that the refusal to speak is not under the child's control. The child is simply unable to speak in anxiety-provoking situations. The parent said that recognizing the child's problem as anxiety was instrumental in allowing them to relax and put less pressure on the child, which helped smooth the way for the child to become less anxious.
posted by telepanda at 12:52 PM on February 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

Her parents may want to check into this type of program called PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System); I've worked with non-speaking children and PECS is the gold standard for alternate communication.

For kids with SM, it can relieve the pressure of having to actually speak (although that anxiety should be addressed) and it allows them to still communicate.

In my work with kids with SM, sometimes just removing that pressure to speak (because it's not like the kid can and won't; the kid literally can't) can reduce their anxiety across the board.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 12:53 PM on February 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Wow, you folks are awesome, thank you so much.
posted by Dansaman at 12:58 PM on February 25, 2016

I'd recommend ASL(American Sign Language, which isn't as easy for others to get, but offers a full expressive language. Bonus as she could interact with the Deaf community, which could help her social skills and just learning about the world.

Though she may preference ASL over talking which could end up being "a bad thing" that hinders her recovery of speaking. They would be for a competent psychologist to decide.

But if she's already expressive, a child's sign language class may be a great thing.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:43 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The not for profit I am involved with is working with a child with this issue. We are an organization that works with underprivileged kids offering arts education. The school district can't offer music but we do. It was recommended that this child learn non-verbal communication methods and he has excelled at three different musical instruments. I don't know much else about this because he's not my child, but I do see how far he's come musically.
posted by readery at 1:50 PM on February 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

Check your MeMail.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 1:50 PM on February 25, 2016

I have been told that kids who speak lots of languages sometimes don't speak to "outsiders" (people outside of the family) because they're not sure which language they should use. This is basically anecdata, but possibly relevant?
posted by JubileeRubaloo at 3:12 PM on February 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

I remember a childhood classmate who was like this. He's an adult now and speaks and interacts completely normally, perhaps a bit more reserved than most. I do remember, however, that our kindergarten teacher used to force him to speak once a day. Your question brought that experience back to me so clearly, and made me really sad for that long-ago little boy. She was an otherwise nice teacher and she didn't threaten him or anything (that I know of), but she would be doing roll call and she would say his name and he was just required to answer. I can remember hearing his name, the long pause and then hearing his soft, raspy little voice say, "here." Ugh it brings tears to my eyes. I hope teachers today aren't doing that kind of crap because it was painful - for him and even for the other kids who had to witness his discomfort.
posted by areaperson at 3:29 PM on February 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

***Just wanted to clarify that I don't know if my classmate had selective mutism or any formal diagnosis at all, or what kind of help he received. I just know his symptoms sound very similar to OP's description.
posted by areaperson at 3:50 PM on February 25, 2016

A friend raised her kids to be bilingual. She said they had difficulty knowing what language to speak to different people with. Perhaps that's part of what is coming into play here.
posted by backwards guitar at 6:55 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also went had a classmate like this. She didn't talk for the entire 1st grade(!) but grew up to be successful, happy adult.
posted by jessca84 at 5:44 PM on February 26, 2016

Found this question really late, but: memail sent.
posted by cheesegrater at 3:17 PM on March 24, 2016

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