Poppy chatted happily at home but outside she was afraid to speak
At home Poppy Griffin was a bright, articulate little girl – but outside she was silent. She was almost five, yet had never once talked to her aunts and uncles, her swimming or trampolining teachers, and wouldn’t utter a word to her mum, Kate, in the supermarket if anyone else was within earshot.
Kate tried getting cross, cajoling and bribing her to speak – but nothing worked, and it wasn’t until after another disastrous silent trip to a birthday party that Kate realised something might be seriously wrong. “We were on the way home and she burst into tears and said,
‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I want to be like other children but I can’t,’ says Kate, 36, from Dover, Kent. “It was then I knew I had to find out what was behind this.”
As it turned out, Poppy was one of a growing number of children suffering from selective mutism, a phobia about talking that now affects one in 140 children, usually from the age of two to four upwards.
It’s not that sufferers are shy or choosing not to talk – they simply can’t. They freeze up, become physically rigid and can’t make any kind of sound (some SM sufferers won’t even use a public loo because someone might hear them).
Experts think SM is on the rise partly because today’s toddlers aren’t being exposed to enough face-to-face speech – so the first significant social interaction they get is at nursery or playgroup, which can prove so daunting that they are traumatised and clam up.
“We are seeing more cases partly because of greater awareness but also because lifestyles have changed,” says specialist speech therapist Gino Hipolito at St George’s Hospital, south London. “People have cars and iPads and shop online, so children are not seeing parents’ social interaction as much as when they walked up the high street and into corner shops.” That is crucial to the 10 to 15…