"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."
She has made it her life's mission to understand the mystery of her daughter's selective mutism and save hundreds of others like her from a lifetime of silence. Her therapy practice, devoted solely to selective mutism patients, involves working intensely with the children, their parents and their schools.
Shipon-Blum defines selective mutism as "a social communication anxiety that renders a child silent due to profound anxiety. But in another setting they can be engaging and interactive and just as endearing as any other child." She says that people often misunderstand the behavior as a child being stubborn, but she describes the behavior as being "stuck." And to get "unstuck," Shipon-Blum says, it is important not to focus on simply getting the child to talk.
"When the emphasis is on trying to get a child to speak, you're actually reinforcing the anxiety. So these children just hear the word 'talk,' and their anxiety level goes up, because everyone around them is focusing on getting them to talk."
Shipon-Blum says that each child is at a different stage in what she calls "The Social Communication Bridge." Some children are completely noncommunicative, while others are mute but can communicate nonverbally with gestures and nods. The biggest challenge is transitioning the child across the "bridge" from nonverbal to verbal communication.
How does one get the child to cross this bridge? Shipon-Blum says "it was really a matter of putting pieces together and learning that these children need to feel in control." One helpful technique called "Ritual Sound Approach" teaches children to make sounds instead of saying full words, like "sss" for yes and "nnn" for no, and then shaping sounds into words.
Six year old Laura Huggins is living proof that therapy can work for children like Jacob. Now energetic and talkative, Laura was once completely mute at school, even unable to ask to go to the bathroom. At one point, she stopped speaking to her own father for three months. "We saw this vivacious, funny, smart, bright child and our fear was that no one else was going to get to see this same child," her mother Patti said.
After a year of therapy with Shipon-Blum, Laura's world changed. In a remarkable demonstration of her progress, she was able to do an on camera interview with "20/20," describing her experience with selective mutism. "It's like when you are afraid to talk and it's really scary when you're in front of people," she said. "And sometimes it's hard to interact, like play with everyone."
After nine sessions with Shipon-Blum, Jacob has already shown signs of progress. He has made a friend named Tony at school, with whom he is comfortable speaking, and he communicates in public today with more ease.
And as for Shipon-Blum's daughter, she overcame her mutism and was able to lead her bat mitzvah in front of hundreds of people.
"I wish I had had a crystal ball that when she was four years of age and five years of age, that I could have known that's what she would have become," Shipon-Blum said.
But perhaps the most inspiring words for children like Jacob are from Laura, who tells children who are suffering with selective mutism, "I know that they will get over it. It might take a couple of years or something but they can get over it."
For more information on selective mutism visit: http://www.selectivemutism.org