Speech Anxiety Impacts Kids and Grown-ups, Hindering Communication Efforts

There is a five-year-old girl named Effie who is helping raise awareness for a condition called selective mutism. She developed this severe anxiety disorder, which caused her to have a phobia of speaking to others. Effie used to only talk to her immediate family, as she couldn’t bring herself to speak in certain situations due to the overwhelming anxiety. This condition is becoming more prevalent, and the expectation to speak to specific people triggers a freeze response and makes talking impossible.

Effie was very talkative at home, but her family and friends had never heard her utter a single word. She was diagnosed with selective mutism during the lockdown, and this condition is characterized by an intense fear that prevents individuals from speaking in certain circumstances. If left untreated, it can lead to profound consequences like isolation, low self-esteem, and social anxiety disorder. The fear of speaking to someone unfamiliar caused Effie to become visibly upset and uncomfortable. She would tense up, put her hand in her mouth, avoid eye contact, and refuse to speak.

Tania, Effie’s mother, reveals that not even the child’s own grandmother had heard her speak. Effie is just one of many children who are being diagnosed with selective mutism, which is essentially a phobia of speaking to certain people. This condition requires appropriate treatment as without it, the mutism can persist into adolescence and adulthood. It’s truly heartbreaking to think that Effie would rather have an accident than ask someone she wasn’t comfortable with for help.

Fortunately, Tania feels fortunate that her concerns were taken seriously, and they sought help from a health visitor and speech therapist. Effie’s school has also made necessary adjustments to accommodate her needs. Recently, Effie has started saying a few words at school and even engaging in conversations with her grandmother. However, it is important to understand that selective mutism is not a refusal to speak; rather, it is a physical inability to speak when the fear response is triggered.

Anita McKiernan from The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists explains that selective mutism is a condition that makes it difficult for others to comprehend. The person affected by this disorder indeed desires to speak, but they are physically unable to do so when overcome by fear. Tania hopes that sharing Effie’s story will increase awareness and understanding of selective mutism. Her ultimate goal is to provide support for those who are silently struggling with this condition.

Selective mutism is a severe anxiety disorder where individuals cannot speak in certain social situations. It typically begins in childhood, and if left untreated, it may continue into adulthood. It is important to note that people with selective mutism do not consciously refuse to speak; rather, they are physically unable to do so. The anticipation of specific situations triggers a freeze response accompanied by panic, similar to stage fright, which renders them incapable of speaking. This distressing reaction becomes predictable for the affected individual, leading them to avoid these situations. While selective mutism affects approximately 1 in 140 young children, it is more prevalent among girls and those who are learning a second language.

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