Suffering in Silence: Why a Developmental Psychopathology Perspective on Selective Mutism Is Needed

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A developmental psychopathology perspective is offered in an effort to organize the existing literature regarding the etiology of selective mutism (SM), a relatively rare disorder in which a child consistently fails to speak in 1 or more social settings (e.g., school) despite speaking normally in other settings (e.g., home). Following a brief description of the history, prevalence, and course of the disorder, multiple pathways to the development of SM are discussed, with a focus on the various genetic, temperamental, psychological, and social/environmental systems that may be important in conceptualizing this unusual childhood disorder. The authors propose that SM develops due to a series of complex interactions among the various systems reviewed (e.g., a strong genetic loading for anxiety interacts with an existing communication disorder, resulting in heightened sensitivity to verbal interactions and mutism in some settings). Suggestions are provided for future longitudinal, twin/adoption, molecular genetic, and neuroimaging studies that would be particularly helpful in testing the pathways perspective on SM.

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