Selective Mutism and Autism: A Better Understanding

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There is still a lot to learn and uncover about selective mutism and autism, and there are even more misconceptions needed to be straightened up.

Unfortunately, even in the digital age of massive information sharing, there are still concepts essential to promote neurodiversity that a lot of us simply don’t understand.

In this light, we seek to provide a basic understanding of selective mutism and autism.

We seek to define both terms and answer the most frequently asked questions surrounding these conditions.

That way, we can tell them apart and have an idea of what to do and when to seek help.

What Is Autism?

According to the organization, Autism Speaks, autism, also known as autism spectrum disorder or ASD, is a term used to refer to a wide range of conditions that manifest through challenges in social interactions, speech, nonverbal communication, and more.

There are different types of autism, and more importantly, everyone experiences it differently. 

It goes without saying that no two people with autism are exactly the same. 

While the earliest signs of autism can show as early as 18 months, most get formally diagnosed around two to three years old when their symptoms get more apparent.

Does Autism Affect Voice?

As mentioned above, autism can affect both verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

So, yes, if a person has autism, their voice or speech gets affected.

That is why it is closely compared with the second condition: selective mutism.

What Is Selective Mutism?

According to the Autism Society, autism is categorized as a developmental disability.

On the other hand, selective mutism is considered a complex anxiety disorder that starts during childhood.

It manifests as a child’s inability to speak during social settings and environments they don’t feel comfortable in.

It is important to note, though, that those with selective mutism can communicate well whenever they are in their comfort zones.

According to an article published by the Selective Mutism, Anxiety, and Related Disorders Treatment Center (or SMART Center), most people who have this disorder may also suffer from social phobia or anxiety.

Is Selective Mutism on the Spectrum?

We have already established that autism and selective mutism are two different conditions. 

The first one is a developmental disability, while the latter is categorized as a social anxiety disorder.

We understand, though, why there are still a lot of us who get confused between the two. After all, both can cause severe communication impairment.

That is why most of us wonder, “Is selective mutism a form of autism?”

For instance, those with selective mutism can fail to make eye contact and have a blank face, void of expression.

That is how those with autism behave during social interactions, as well.

That said, there is a way to find out and differentiate between the two conditions.

You can look into how the person behaves when they’re in a comfortable and secure place.

Can they talk confidently? If yes, then they’re probably suffering from selective mutism. 

On the other hand, if that person still can’t communicate well, that is a good indicator that the person might have autism. 

After all, those with autism behave the same across different types of situations.

selective mutism and autism

What Causes Selective Mutism?

That leads us to the next question: if autism doesn’t cause selective mutism, then what causes it? 

According to the SMART Center, selective mutism has different causes, including:

  • Genes

Just like most conditions, having selective mutism can be traced back to genetics.

Those who have other family members who tend to be anxious are more vulnerable to develop anxiety.

You can see the symptoms in children as manifested through separation anxiety, moodiness, frequent tantrums, and more.

  • Sensory Processing Disorder

Those with this condition have difficulties processing sensory information.

Thus, they find it challenging to react emotionally to uncomfortable social interactions that can then potentially lead to selective mutism.

  • Lack of Self-Esteem Caused by Speech Abnormalities

Those who have speech or language-related issues might find it almost painful to interact with other people in fear of being bullied.

This insecurity can then lead to selective mutism; in fact, it doesn’t even have to be a speech impediment, like having a lisp or stuttering.

It can even be caused by something as (seemingly) simple as a weird accent or the lack of skill in communicating in a certain language.

  • Still a Mystery

Finally, there is a small percentage of people with selective mutism with no apparent cause.

As mentioned above, we still have a lot to learn about this condition.

At the moment, though, most experts seem to suggest that there is no apparent relation between selective mutism and abuse, trauma, or neglect.

Selective Mutism vs. Traumatic Mutism

Traumatic mutism is another condition that frequently compared with selective mutism. 

It is a type of mutism that suddenly develops in all situations.

It has already been proven that the individual can speak, but they simply stop talking altogether. 

This issue usually happens when a person undergoes a sudden traumatic event like witnessing a loved one’s passing or experiencing abuse. 

It is also possible for those with selective mutism to eventually progress to mutism in all settings. 

This stage can happen due to negative reinforcement or a deep sense of being misunderstood.

Fortunately, it can also happen the other way around.

Someone who is mute across all social interactions will eventually muster enough confidence to talk with a few trusted people through constant therapy and positive reinforcement.

Can You Have Selective Mutism and Autism?

Anyway, now that we have fully differentiated selective mutism vs autism, don’t think that it’s only possible to get just one of the two.

To answer this question, yes, it is possible to have both autism and selective mutism.

Apparently, those with developmental delays and disabilities, like Pervasive Developmental Disorder and Aspergers, are at a higher risk of eventually developing selective mutism. 

We believe that this is also related to some of the causes of selective mutism shared above.

For instance, those aware of their developmental disability may find it extremely uncomfortable to communicate with other people.

It can cause severe anxiety, especially for those who were heavily bullied when they were young. That can then potentially lead to selective mutism.

What’s most important to remember is that every situation is unique.

It would be ideal if most of the information we’re sharing actually relates to your specific case, but the truth is, it also might not.

In the end, we highly recommend consulting a professional if you have more specific queries that we have failed to cover in this article. 

What Is It Like to Have Selective Mutism?

It is only natural to find selective mutism hard to understand if you don’t suffer from it.

It is also not a condition that most of us are exposed to every day compared to other forms of anxiety disorders.

In fact, the only popular culture icon who has selective mutism that comes to mind is Rajesh Koothrappali in the television series, The Big Bang Theory.

Raj, as he is usually referred to in the series, doesn’t seem to have any difficulty talking with his friends. 

There are even episodes when we see him speaking in public.

Unfortunately, though, he cannot talk to women.

Can Selective Mutism Be Cured?

However, we see in the same show that Raj eventually overcomes his selective mutism, or at the very least, he found a way to deal with it. 

That leads us to the next question: can selective mutism be cured, or does this only happen in fiction?

According to the National Health Services in the UK, yes, selective mutism can be overcome, especially if diagnosed and properly managed at an early age. 

On the other hand, adults may find it harder to do so, but even for them, there is still much hope.

How About Autism?

Unfortunately, there is currently no known way to “cure” autism.

That said, various therapies can help them manage their behavioral difficulties.

There are structured educational programs that parents can look into as well.

Finally, a specialist can prescribe certain medications to manage other symptoms such as hyperactivity and depression.

Selective Mutism vs Autism

Do you find yourself asking “Is selective mutism a form of autism?

It is not surprising why selective mutism and autism are commonly mistaken for each other.

There are times when they exhibit the same symptoms and behaviors, and there are cases when one can suffer from both of them at the same time.

However, some aspects tell them apart. Selective mutism, for instance, only happens during certain social interactions.

Sufferers can actually communicate well when they are not in a stressful environment.

On the other hand, those with autism can display communication issues regardless if they are in a stressful environment or not.

Fortunately, there are ways to manage both. Early diagnosis and intervention are key to overcome selective mutism as a child.

Meanwhile, various types of therapies are available to help manage autism since it is a lifetime developmental disability.