Selective mutism¬†occurs when a person finds themselves unable to speak in particular situations, often, but not always, when they are feeling overwhelmed or unsafe; it is commonly described as an anxiety disorder, though anxiety isn’t always identifiable as the cause.

This unexpected inability to speak occurs even if the person’s ability to do so would help them find help in that situation. This is because it isn’t a matter of choice. If it were a matter of choice it would be called elective, not selective mutism.

As well as being related to anxiety, it is also associated with trauma, unfamiliar environments and exhaustion. Sometimes the reasons are unknown. It is a common experience for large numbers of autistic people, though being selectively mute doesn’t necessarily mean you are also autistic.

This is completely different to nonspeaking and minimally verbal, both in how it expresses itself and its causes. With selective mutism, there is no damage to any part of the brain or vocal cords, though the inability to speak is very real – it simply isn’t possible – nothing comes out – but its roots are psychological, and, to reiterate, it’s not wilful. Many, many autistic children, including two of my own, have been misunderstood in this regard, and it’s heartbreaking.