Selective Mutism

Selective Mutism (SM) is characterized by a persistent failure to speak in one or more social situations for at least 1 month (not limited to the first month of school). Children usually develop SM before the age of 5, however it may not be diagnosed until school-age when the disturbance because more noticeable and interfering. Children are usually able to speak comfortably if at home with their immediate family. In less familiar settings or when unfamiliar people are around, children may feel unable to speak.

SM is often misinterpreted as oppositionality by teachers or other adult figures because children with this condition do not speak in certain settings, but are able to speak comfortably in other environments. However, a preponderance of research suggests that SM is due to anxiety rather than a behavioral problem. In addition, SM is often assumed to be the result of trauma or neglect, but children with SM experience trauma at rates commensurate with the greater population.


Rather than speaking, children with SM often communicate non-verbally with gestures (e.g., pointing, nodding or shaking their heads). At times, children with SM may communicate verbally, but in a limited manner (e.g., whispering, only responding yes or no, making noises rather than full words). There is a high rate of overlap between SM and Social Anxiety Disorder. Children with both of these conditions may be fearful of negative evaluation or judgment, may worry about doing something embarrassing, and may be socially isolated or withdrawn.

SM is not diagnosed if a child’s difficulty speaking is due to:

  • Lack of knowledge of the language
  • Oppositionality (although SM due to anxiety about speaking in particular situations is often misinterpreted as oppositionality)
  • A broader inability to speak
  • Another communication disorder

BU Brave Bunch Program

The BU Brave program is a week-long intensive group treatment program for children who have been diagnosed with selective mutism or have difficulty speaking in social or school situations with familiar and/or unfamiliar peers and adults. This program is modeled after the Brave Bunch summer treatment program developed by Dr. Steven Kurtz of the Child Mind Institute, and simulates a classroom, which provides guided opportunities for children to interact with a number of new children and adults, participate in classroom-like activities, engage in field trips, and play socializing games that promote verbal participation and spontaneous speaking. For more information, see the Brave Bunch Program page or contact us.