Behavioral: The most evidence-based recommended treatment for selective mutism is behavioral therapy using controlled exposure. The therapist works with the child and her parents to gradually and systematically approach the settings where she cannot speak, building her confidence one situation at a time. The child is never pressured to speak, and is always encouraged with positive reinforcement. Specialized techniques are used to guide the child’s increasing exposure to difficult settings, and the therapist will teach parents and child how to use these techniques in real-life settings. Newer approaches offer evidence that intensive treatment from the time of diagnosis may prove more effective than traditional weekly sessions. Some SM specialists are also providing patients with day-long and week-long school and camp type experiences to more realistically simulate the real life situations these children struggle with.
Pharmacological: Not every child with selective mutism requires medication and no one treatment plan fits all situations. Some children may be prescribed anti-anxiety medications from the start, typically if their initial presentation is quite severe, if they have not done well with a prior behavioral or other psychotherapy, if they have a very strong family history of similar disorders, or if they suffer from other impairing anxiety disorders as well as selective mutism, such as obsessive compulsive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Some children will be prescribed medication if the results of an initial behavioral intervention fall short of the desired gains, if the child is moving along too slowly, or the process is too onerous. Many children who take medication as part of their treatment find that exposure tasks become easier to tolerate, making the difference between success and avoidance. These medicines are tolerated well by children, who are always monitored for the presence of side effects.
Selective mutism is one of the more poorly understand childhood psychiatric disorders at present, and experts really don’t know how many children who could be diagnosed with SM “grow out” of the condition without clinical intervention. What is known is that children suffer emotionally, socially and academically while they are unable to speak.
Is it my fault?
Selective mutism isn’t caused by any negative behavior on the part of parents—in fact, parents of kids with SM often appear overprotective and more than willing to accommodate a child with trouble speaking. A good therapist can train parents to hold back and let the child experience an appropriate amount of risk—what practitioners call the “magic 5 seconds.”
Is SM the result of a traumatic experience?
No. Because kids with SM can’t talk in some situations and sometimes appear shell shocked, people often assume they were exposed to a traumatic experience. But the signs and symptoms of SM appear to be brought on by your child’s anxiety about social situations.
How long is treatment?
That depends. Some cases respond rapidly to treatment, while other kids need a much more involved intervention to overcome SM, up to 2 years. In either case, symptoms can and do return in response to stressful life changes, so many kids may have “booster” sessions after their initial treatment.
How long will my child be on medication?
Should your child’s SM treatment include medication, which is prescribed for about a third of kids diagnosed, our clinicians suggest the child remain on the medication for “one year of success” after the signs and symptoms disappear, or a full cycle of all the situations that gave your child trouble before: school, recitals, camp, holidays, vacations, etc.