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January 2011



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THE number of children with a rare condition that can leave them mute outside the home has rocketed by more than 800% over the past 30 years, a speech therapist said yesterday.

Maggie Johnson says the numbers of children with “selective mutism” has exploded due, in part, to social changes like more women working full-time.

Ms Johnson also maintains other factors, including early pressure on pre-school children to speak, are playing a part.

She estimates the number of children with the condition has risen from around 0.8 in 1,000 30 years ago to one in 150 now – by more than eight times.

Ms Johnson, who will speak at an Early Years (Mudiad Ysgolion Meithrin) conference in Llandrindod Wells today, said with the right help almost all the children can overcome the condition.

In the past it was termed “elective mutism”, because it was believed the children chose not to talk.

On this basis professionals like teachers often worked from the misguided belief that the pupils were just stubborn and wilful.

Now it is accepted the condition stems from anxiety and therapies revolve round nurturing confidence in situations where the children feel unable to talk – typically in school.

Ms Johnson, who has around 30 years’ experience in the field and is co-author of the Selective Mutism Resource Manual, said: “Both parents usually work now and that’s how it’s got to be.

“There maybe more than one person involved in child care – mum might look after the kids on Tuesday and Wednesday, with a regular childminder on a Thursday and then nursery on Fridays.

“I think it’s about there being a lot of change in children’s lives – it’s not the same thing every day.”

The therapist, a mother-of-one, added: “There are a lot of factors here and children are going into pre-school and being tested and measured up and having to pass certain targets.

“That is just as stressful. I’m not saying it’s wrong because we want children to reach higher standards.

“I’m saying it’s unfortunate because at the same time as the teachers are more stressed and trying to get the children to do more verbally they’re already coming in a bit more anxious.

“Those two things together are creating a situation where there’s a lot more pressure to talk before children are ready.”

Alice Sluckin, chair of the Selective Mutism Information & Research Association (Smira), dismissed the idea that there has been a big rise in the numbers of children with the condition.

She said that as with conditions like autism, there are simply greater levels of awareness now, creating the impression the problem is more common.

The 90-year-old retired senior psychiatrist and social worker said that although many children overcome their difficulties, for some traces remain into adulthood.

Mrs Sluckin, who in the 1960s pioneered the kind of confidence-building therapies that remain common practice today, said: “A large number of them do become better as they grow older, but quite a few nevertheless remain fearful and have difficulty speaking in public and asserting themselves.

“I wouldn’t like to say it’s a life-long condition, but some traces may remain.”

Last year the Western Mail reported on how the parents of selectively mute Erin Gruffydd brought her condition to the attention of the National Assembly.

Now 10 Erin, from Aberystwyth, still only speaks to certain teachers and pupils at Llanfarian Primary School.

Her mother Meleri MacDonald, 37, believes her daughter’s condition has already proved life-limiting – she is unable to participate in school plays and concerts despite being a keen singer.

Mrs MacDonald, a translator, said: “I don’t think it’s something she’ll just be cured of or that will disappear. I hope she’ll be able to find strategies and ways to cope with it.”

Source:   http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2009/10/01/big-rise-in-children-left-mute-outside-the-home-91466-24823586/

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