Though she can be chatty with us at home, my 10-year-old daughter has always been very quiet when she is out socially and when she is in school.
When she was a preschooler she was diagnosed as selectively mute and we took her to see a speech therapist and a play therapist, both of which seemed to help. Now, at 10, she is still very reserved and quiet. She does have a couple of friends and is happiest when she meets these individually rather than in a group.
She was invited to a sleepover (her first) with one of these girls last week, where there were girls she did not know. We were all nervous about it and unfortunately it did not go well. She contacted me all anxious and I had to go and collect her early (we made some excuse that she was feeling ill). She was in floods of tears on the way home in the car and would not tell me immediately what was wrong. Later, she told me about how she thought the other girls were making fun of her because she was so quiet. I think she was particularly hurt by her friend who she thought disowned her at the sleepover.
I felt very sad for her and am wondering what I can do to help her. One of my friends who is a psychologist has said she thinks she could be autistic and the more I research this it seems to make sense. She has very particular sensory preferences and hates busy environments particularly shopping centres and needs her routines and comforts to calm her.
We love her so much and just want her to be happy.
Until recently, autism was thought to mainly affect boys and the needs of autistic girls were not recognised or appreciated. In addition, there is an increasing recognition that selective mutism (which mainly affects girls) can also be a sign of autism. One recent study found that two-thirds of children diagnosed with selective mutism also met the criteria for an autistic diagnosis. Taking time to consider whether your child may be autistic might give you a better understanding of her needs and how you can help her. Also, there is a growing positive identity around being autistic which could give you and your daughter access to good support and resources.
Selective mutism is best understood as driven by social anxiety and/or sensory overwhelm. The child might find the social rules of group communication stressful to navigate and certain social situations might be noisy, busy and overwhelming. This can invoke a traumatic “freeze” response whereby they cope by shutting down and not talking. It is a case that they “can’t speak” rather than they are “choosing not to speak”. A traditional girls’ sleepover is likely to be one of the most traumatic social events for a selectively mute child. A sleepover is a highly unstructured social situation with lots of “in jokes” and unnamed expectations which are likely to be stressful and thus invoke her mute response. Unfortunately, her mute response can then cause a further negative social reaction which adds to the trauma.
There is a lot you can do to help your daughter
Help her understand herself compassionately
Help your daughter reframe what happened rather than blame herself for the sleepover. Listen to her as she talks and explain how it is understandable how she responded. You can tell her that lots of children don’t like big social situations or sleepovers and prefer one-to-one meetings and that is understandable and normal.
If you search online there are some great story books for selectively mute children that help them understand and find their own voice.
Help her understand her friends
You can also help her understand her friend who might have “disowned” her at the sleepover. You can explain that her friend might have been embarrassed in a different social group and that she did not know how hard it can be for your daughter to speak, etc.
There may be a way of building bridges with the original friend, perhaps by going back to some of their previous one-to-one meetings. However, it might also be important to help your daughter make links with other children as well (in structured activities that match her passions as we describe below).
Build on social situations your daughter is comfortable with
Focus on one-to-one friend activities or meeting friends in your house if she is more comfortable there.
For example, a guides hiking camp or a sporting trip (with good leaders) will work better than an unstructured, unsupervised party for the moment. You can still consider some unstructured groups, but you might do these gradually and at her pace. For example, your daughter might go for a shorter time and let her be in control of when she leaves (eg sending you a message to pick her up etc)
Find activities your daughter loves
Your daughter is much more likely to be happy and successful socially when she is doing activities she loves. For example, she might communicate more doing a quiz or playing a boardgame or in a choir if any of these are her passions.
Also, when she is engaging in her passions, she is more likely to find and make friends who understand and who are similar to her.
Seek more information and support
Do seek more information and support to help your daughter. You can do this informally by reading and accessing the many online support forums and resources for parents of selectively mute and/or autistic children as well as listening to the fascinating stories of adults who were diagnosed as selectively mute as children.
You could also consider recontacting professional services for an assessment of your daughter’s needs and to gain direct support like you had before.