While occasional shyness can be common among typically-developing children, some children may not communicate at all in certain situations. Though it is considered a low-incidence condition (i.e., 1-7 cases per 1,000 children) compared to other communication disorders, selective mutism can have a significant impact on the children it affects and their families.
Children who have selective mutism might interact minimally with others to have their basic needs met or they might avoid all forms of communication, including nonverbal. The range of ages of individuals who can be affected is broad and so is the severity of the condition. The extent of the condition may also vary according to context (e.g., a child may communicate fluidly at home but not at school). There is still much to be learned about selective mutism, but it is often tied to anxiety or other conditions that require treatment from mental health personnel.
Positive outcomes for children with selective mutism also rely heavily on speech-language pathology interventions. During the past 10 years of its 45-year history, the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders’ (COMD) USC Speech and Hearing Research Center has not only successfully treated patients with selective mutism, but it has also become a recognized authority in understanding the condition and training the next generation of speech-language pathologists and researchers in its nuances.
“Over time, clinicians throughout the region and state have consulted with faculty at the Center when they have encountered patients suspected of having selective mutism,” says Clinical Associate Professor Dr. Angela McLeod. “The University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health is known to provide a professional training program for graduate students, and the COMD academic and research faculty engage in research and investigations on varied topics.”
Speech-language pathologists often request consultations with Center faculty. In turn, the clinicians, along with pediatricians, refer patients to the Center. “All faculty are constantly reviewing current research literature and facilitating students’ engagement as clinical scientists, demonstrating the importance of staying informed of best practice and professional standards in the field,” Dr. McLeod says.
Equally important is the COMD department’s mantra that every patient is an individual who deserves custom treatment in order to improve. For example, a young child may be affected to the extent that s/he does not convey basic intentions such as the need to eat or drink while in a classroom setting. In those situations, the child can be offered a non-threatening way to convey those needs, such as presenting a teacher with a photograph of a drink. “The intervention strategies vary according to the age of the patient, the symptoms exhibited and individual needs,” says Dr. McLeod.