Selective Mutism

When stress piles up, many autistic people find themselves going selectively mute. Selective mutism is not a choice. While NTs can learn a variety of strategies for communicating with their selectively mute/semi-verbal/nonverbal loved ones, many autistic people often still want to communicate their needs and feelings during these times. Here are a few ideas for communicating when words are not an option:

1) If selective mutism is a consistent experience in your life, you may want to prepare notecards that have typical needs written on them. Keep the notecards in your bag or sensory kit. Some example phrases could include: “I’m unable to speak right now, but I’m still listening,” “I need to go to the bathroom,” or “I would like to be alone right now.” You could even write down some favorite quotes that you feel express your emotions well.

2) If you want to remain present even when you can’t speak, try using proxemics to communicate your interest. Proxemics are the amount of space that people put between themselves to speak through body language. Lean in when you agree. Pull back when you don’t. Most people will get an idea of how you feel by these simple gestures.

3) Sometimes, touch can speak louder than words. If you’re seeking comfort or to comfort when you are mute, you can put your head on someone’s shoulder or pat someone on the back. Be careful here, as touch is a sensitive topic for many neurodivergents.

4) While we can’t speak, we can often move our faces. Smiling, frowning, shaking/nodding our heads, and shrugging are key expressions that can get our points across without speech.

5) It can be tempting to dive into our phones as a place of retreat. Yet, whenever we see someone on their phone, we often just feel ignored. Most autistic people don’t intend to ignore people when they are selectively mute. We just need space. As such, I would suggest going to a solitary space before taking refuge in your phone, so as to not give the wrong impression.

6) Establish boundaries. If selective mutism happens regularly, prime your close companions on what you need during those times. You can also write out those needs in the moment.

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