Updated: Jan 12
The first thing to say is that the term ‘selective mutism’ isn’t accurate. Nonetheless, I put it in the title of this blog because, the only way for me to tell you that the term is unhelpful, if for you first to search selective mutism and then read this blog. So Welcome! I’m going to talk about situational mutism, what is means for your learner in mind, how I worked with one particular learner and then I’ll share my top tips.
Mutism, where a child or young person does not speak in certain situations, such as school, is not selective. Your learner is not making an active choice. In fact, they aren’t choosing at all. They are unable to speak in that situation because they are experiencing extreme, even clinical levels of anxiety. They may be able to talk, shout, sing and murmur at home or at their music class or to their neighbour they bump into in the yoghurt aisle of the supermarket, but they can’t speak in school. Therefore, the term ‘situational mutism’ is more accurate and helpful for the learners and their teachers.
“How can I teach her if she doesn’t speak?”
This is honestly, one of the most common questions I get asked by educators. I can understand why. It’s hard to get your head round the fact that you’ve seen your learner chatting happily to Mrs Brown from next door at the Co-op, but, she won’t speak to you. It’s difficult not to take personally. It could be tempting to try and punish your learner or somehow trick them into speaking. Neither of these options work however, they may even be damaging to your learner and your relationship with them, but there are several things that do.
The simple ( but not necessarily easy) answer to the question above is
“Teach her like the rest of the class but with adaptations”.
There are a number of ways this can be done. I’m going to share them with you, but first please bear in mind that you will get to the point where;
You don’t even notice that your learner has mutism.
And it’s at the point where you are completely confident with the methods and able to easily adapt your lesson to fit the learner that they just, might, speak!
This is the story of Millie, an autistic, highly intelligent, year 10 girl (15). She was finally back in school after a long period of persistent absence.(for more information about PA read my blog here https://www.neuroteachers.com/post/school-refusal-what-is-really-going-on). As a result, Millie’s anxiety levels were still high, and she was unable to speak in school. The school had asked me in to help with her reintegration from the learning support hub to classroom learning. They understood her situational mutism well, and put no pressure on her to speak, but in order to help her make the next step back to attending class, we needed to ‘hear her voice’. It was clear that this wasn’t going to be through actual speech. It’s soon became apparent however, that Millie has a way she liked to communicate.
She spent half her time with each of her parents, who were amicably divorced. Whilst she was at her mother’s house, she would use a chat application on her phone to ‘talk’ to her dad. There was something very particular about this method of communication; however, the entire conversation would be a series of meme’s, gifs and emoji’s.
Millie’s father explained this too me and, with Millie’s permission, shared a few lines of a conversation with me, as an example, so I could communicate with her.
Communication started slowly. I would sit in the same room as Millie. This was in the Learning Support Hub and Millie’s Keyworker was also present. We each sat at a school desktop computer and used a chat function, which the students and staff were all familiar with. Crucially for Millie, we all had our backs to the centre of the room so none of us were facing each other. Then we began a conversation about Millie’s special interest, which at this time was the late 90’s / early ‘00 comedy programme ‘Friends’. Fortunately for the key worker and I, there are plenty of memes and gifs for this programme. Although this 3-way exchange was slow at first, over the course of an hour, it flowed more easily. Millie even let out a few stifled giggles if she found one of the images particularly funny.
Over the next few weeks, we communicated regularly in this way; just posting memes or gifs about ‘Friends’ but gradually emoji’s started to make their way into the conversation. Then after a couple of months, Millie began to type single words, then sentences. She was eventually ready to answer simple, closed questions with a yes or no. One day, to our surprise, she typed an entire sentence ,which opened the door to being able to express her wants and needs. Within 6 months Millie was typing long answers and was able to ‘chat’ about a variety of different subjects, including her future aspirations for college.
To date, Millie has not spoken in school. She did manage to get some qualifications and go to college to do an Art and Design course. She still prefers to type using emojis, gifs and memes to communicate, but as long as those supporting her understand this, she is able to achieve her aspirations.
5 tips for supporting a learner with situational mutism
1. Remove all pressure and expectation for your learner to talk – In Millie’s case, all staff at school and outside agencies knew that she couldn’t speak in school, so there was no expectation or pressure. This really helped her to trust the adults she met at school and lowered her anxiety levels enough to help her attendance increase.
2. Learn to speak their language-As with non-speaking autistic learners, you have to use the method or methods of communication which work for your learner. In Millie’s case it was meme’s, gifs and emojis, but I have worked with learners who use body language, communication cards ( designed by the student), red, yellow and green pen’s held up to communicate agreement or disagreement, and in one case, an entirely made up language. Use what works
3. Allow plenty of time to process and respond – As with all cases of extreme, clinical levels of anxiety, Millie needed 6 months of twice weekly communication in this method, to trust her key-worker and me enough to type sentences. This is about an average amount of time to develop enough trust for your learner to volunteer information.
4. Know what interests your learner- You need to give your learner ‘an irresistible reason to attend’ in the words of Gina Davies, the well known speech and language therapist. In other words, give your learner a reason to communicate with you. The absolute gift for any educator is the fact that many autistic people have special interests and passions. Here, I talk about Millie and her love of the classic situation comedy ‘Friends’ but I have engaged in communication with learners who interests range from 1960’s classic caravans to South American rodents, neither of which, I knew anything about before I met these students. So, you see, teaching and learning really is a two-way street.
5. Avoid direct requests, questions and demands until you have established regular communication- Demand Avoidant Phenomena can be a feature of autism. ( for more information see my blog here https://www.neuroteachers.com/post/how-to-teach-a-tiger-to-write-understanding-and-supporting-an-autistic-learner-with-pda)
Especially when anxiety levels are running high, or if your learner is dysregulated in other ways. Requests, questions, and demands should be avoided until you have good evidence that your learner trusts you and is calm in your presence and communicating with you.
Finally, when working with a situationally mute learner in school, college or nursery, please remember that the vast majority of these students are well placed in mainstream settings. It’s not that they are totally unable to talk or communicate in any way, but rather that we, as educators need to give them the tools to be able to meet their aspirations. It’s by really getting to know your learner and their strengths and needs, that you can help them achieve this.
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