Situational difficulty in speaking, often referred to as selective mutism, means that a child, young person or adult speaks only in certain situations, to certain people. Usually, people who have situational difficulty in speaking speak in their own family circles, for example, to their own parents, siblings, one or more grandparents or close friends, but do not speak to anyone in their daycare/kindergarten group or classroom, or they speak only to a select few in these groups.

The term ‘selective mutism’ is a little misleading. A child or young person does not purposely choose who they do or do not speak to. For this reason, we use the term ‘situational difficulty in speaking’. The issue concerns a fear of speaking. When a person is afraid, their muscles, including the muscles needed for speaking, become tense and speaking is impossible. The words simply do not come, as many have described the situation.

Situational difficulty in speaking may be a child or young person’s only challenge. However, other children and young people may also have additional language difficulties. Some may also have wider developmental challenges such as autism or sensorimotor challenges.

Sometimes, situational difficulty in speaking can lessen by itself as a child grows. However, children and young people, along with their parents, often need support and help to manage. Care given must always be planned and realised individually.


Researchers believe that mutism cannot be explained by any single reason; rather, mutism is influenced by many factors. The cause of situational difficulty in speaking is still not clearly known. However, many believe it to result from a combination of factors, which are different for each child. One reason may be a hereditary tendency to anxiety or shyness. However, all of these genetic factors do not necessarily exist.

Situational difficulty in speaking is more common in children who have families that speak more than one language. Situational difficulty in speaking is also more prevalent among immigrants.

Sometimes, behind the mutism is one triggering factor, situation or event. However, this type of circumstance is a relatively rare cause of situational difficulty in speaking.