Selective Mutism: When Your Child Can't Speak

ByABC News via GMA logo
March 26, 2006, 5:08 PM

March 27, 2006 — -- Imagine a world where anyone and anyplace outside the comforts of home elicit fear and anxiety so paralyzing that you shut down and cannot speak.

That's the reality for 7-year-old Morgan Galie, who suffers from a childhood anxiety disorder called selective mutism.

"They feel afraid," said Dr. Elisa Shipon-Blum of the Selective Mutism Anxiety Research & Treatment Center in Jenkintown, Pa. "Many of them say the words won't come out. Their voice box feels like it's closing up. Their stomach hurts. Their head hurts. Their body won't let them speak."

"She describes it as the words get stuck in her toes," said Morgan's father, Vincent Galie. "So, it must be just nerve-wracking to not be able to talk when you want to."

At home, Morgan is a different child, her parents say.

"She's the loudest kid in the house, running around, you know, a normal kid, but very loud," Vincent Galie said.

"She's a chatterbox," her mother, Colleen Galie, said. "She loves to talk. She loves to tell me about her day at school, all her friends."

It's not surprising that Morgan acts so differently at home. Selective mutism is the result of extreme anxiety, usually in group settings or around strangers, Shipon-Blum said.

What causes this disorder is not exactly known. What is known is that it has a genetic factor and usually appears when a child is first introduced into the social situation of preschool or school. It is, however, very different than everyday shyness.

"The difference between shyness and selective mutism is ability to function," Shipon-Blum said. "Shy children function. Children with selective mutism have a difficulty socially, emotionally, academically."

This widely misdiagnosed disorder is often ignored or dismissed as just a phase, leaving kids to suffer in silence. The Galies, who were previously unaware that Morgan suffered from selective mutism, initially saw their daughter's behavior at school as defiance. According to a recent study, selective mutism is almost twice as common as autism.

"It's very frustrating, because how she is at home and then to hear that she's not talking in school," Colleen Galie said. "I thought she was doing it on purpose."