Children Unable to Speak

What if a teacher told you that your child, talkative and outgoing at home, was not uttering a single word in school?

For many parents, this is their reality — a child who is highly communicative in one setting but completely shut down in others. It's called selective mutism, and while it affects around seven in every 1,000 children, there are many families who suffer with the disorder without any knowledge of how it can be treated. "20/20" followed two children who have faced the challenge of selective mutism and worked to overcome it.

Jacob Hanna of Fredericksburg, Va., is a personable 7-year-old boy with three younger brothers. Although he has always been verbal and articulate with his parents, John and Donna Hanna, they noticed what they now call a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" personality in their child. "It would be Jacob at home and then it would be Jacob outside of home," said John.

At first his parents thought Jacob was like any normal shy child. "I didn't see any big deal with it. I mean, so what. He was a little reserved when out in public," said Donna. But once Jacob entered preschool, they realized his behavior was much more than just being shy.

'Like Watching a Mime'

Jacob's preschool teachers told the Hannas that Jacob wasn't speaking in class and didn't seem to know his ABC's. This was a frightening wakeup call, particularly since Jacob was an avid reader at home. Jacob also told his parents that he was having trouble interacting with other children.

"There were so many times that Jacob would say, 'I don't have any friends, Mom. No one will play with me,'" said Donna. Their otherwise outgoing child was mute outside the home. "It was like watching a mime," Donna recalled. Jacob wouldn't even laugh out loud or let people know if he was in pain.

The Hannas tried every trick in the parenting book to get Jacob to speak, promising trips to McDonald's and the toy store to coax him into saying sounds in public. When nothing seemed to work, John and Donna were wracked with guilt.

"I really got upset about it, and I thought man, this is my son, and I'm the loudmouth," said John. "And why can't I get my son to do the same stuff."

It was clear that that Jacob wanted to be able to communicate but faced a terrible obstacle. Donna Hanna says her son told her that "my bones feel like glass, my skin feels like paper and my lips are glued shut."

After many fruitless Internet searches, Donna decided to find out more about childhood anxiety, and soon found a link to "I read the criteria and I said, this is it, this is him," said Donna. "No one can tell me any different."

She was right. Jacob was officially diagnosed with selective mutism. Donna said she was "very relieved" by the diagnosis. "I knew, okay, now we can do something to help him," she said.

Getting 'Unstuck'

Help came in the form of Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum, President of the Selective Mutism Anxiety Research and Treatment Center She understood the Hannas' plight firsthand, because her own daughter had the same disorder.

"I had a beautiful little girl who was outspoken, bright, reading at home, inquisitive," said Shipon-Blum. "And this same little girl would go out in public settings and literally shut down, and with other people act as if she didn't know they existed, was almost in her own little world."

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