What is Selective Mutism (F94.0)?

By David Joel Miller, MS, Licensed Therapist & Licensed Counselor.

Selective Mutism is the failure to speak at times when speech is necessary.

What is

What is Selective Mutism (F94.0)?
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Selective Mutism is an interesting disorder. It is one of the less common anxiety disorders and one which commonly first appears in childhood.  This disorder often co-occurs with Social Anxiety Disorder.  As with all the anxiety disorders, Selective Mutism may continue well into adulthood.

Selective Mutism is not the inability to speak or the willful refusal to speak.  Selective Mutism occurs when someone chooses not to speak in a particular situation even when not speaking may cause them difficult.  Children with this condition will avoid starting a conversation with other children.  When spoken to they will fail to respond.

Selective Mutism gets noticed when children begin to attend school.

Children with Selective Mutism do poorly in school because they do not respond verbally to the teacher and do not read out loud.  Those with this disorder may use other ways of communicating rather than speaking.  Sometimes they will point, grunt, or used personally significant gestures.  They may also be willing to engage in social activities when speech is not required.

Children with Selective Mutism are able to speak normally at home with their parents or primary caregivers.  They may be unwilling to speak in the presence of close relatives including cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents.

Risk factors for Selective Mutism.

Children who are shy are at extra risk to develop this disorder.  Having parents who are withdrawn or growing up in a socially isolated environment may also be risk factors.  It is possible that having overprotective or controlling parents increases this risk.  There’s some evidence that children with this disorder have difficulty understanding the things that are said to them.  Having Social Anxiety Disorder or a family history of it may also increase the risks.

Other problems may accompany Selective Mutism.

People with Selective Mutism also frequently are shy and experience social embarrassment.  They may be isolated and withdrawn.  Children with Selective Mutism may be clingy and become easily upset.  They may also exhibit temper tantrums and oppositional behavior.

Having this disorder early in life and not getting treatment for it puts the child at extra risk for poor development and failure to learn needed social skills.

Things that are excluded from a Selective Mutism diagnosis.

To get this diagnosis, this condition of not speaking even when you need to speak must go on for a month or more.  If the thing keeping you from speaking is the result of not knowing the English language or being bilingual in some way, this is not a case of Selective Mutism.

Also excluded from the definition of Selective Mutism are things related to speech fluency.  If the person involved is experiencing an episode of hearing voices, if being psychotic, or a schizophrenia-like condition, this also is outside the definition of Selective Mutism.

FYI These “What is” sometimes “What are” posts are my efforts to explain terms commonly used in Mental Health, Clinical Counseling, Substance Use Disorder Counseling, Psychology, Life Coaching, and related disciplines in a plain language way. Many are based on the new DSM-5, some of the older posts were based on the DSM-IV-TR, both published by the APA. For the more technical versions please consult the DSM or other appropriate references.

More “What is” posts will be found at What is.

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3 thoughts on “What is Selective Mutism (F94.0)?

  1. Pingback: Is your Anxiety a disease? | counselorssoapbox

  2. I thought selective mutism was as much *an inability* to speak in certain situations. That it’s not a choice, so much?

    I did have a personal episode of something like this when I was in my early twenties. There was a specific person I simply could not speak to-anytime I was in the same room with her, my voice shut down and it was impossible. I could speak to any one else but her. I was extremely angry, but it was as much of “I’m unable to” as much as “I don’t want to” situation.

    It’s an interesting topic to me.


    • I would agree that the in Selective Mutism the lack of speech should be an inability caused by fear, anxiety stress, anger, etc. Seems like sometimes the person with Selective Mutism also does not want to speak because of the anxiety that speaking in that situation would trigger. Kind of like the way people with PTSD will avoid situations that trigger intrusive thoughts about the past trauma. Yes, this is an interesting topic, and in practice it is hard to be sure that the behavior we are seeing is actually Selective Mutism and not just a refusal to speak.


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