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Program Helps Selectively Mute Children Overcome Anxieties

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- At home, Jake Semmel acts like a happy-go-lucky 6-year-old who loves Star Wars and fire trucks. At home, Maya Walker, 7, is a chatterbox.

But in public, Jake will only speak to a select few adults in his life and can't even talk to his grandparents. At school, Maya hasn't said a word in class for an entire year. She doesn't move a muscle when she's on stage during the school pageant. She could never blow out the candles at her own birthday parties.

Even sitting in her dad's lap, Maya is very quiet.

"People make assumptions about people who don't talk," her father, Vincent Walker, says. "That they are shy, that they're not as intelligent."

While many quiet kids like Jake and Maya are misdiagnosed with autism or Asperger's, child psychologist Dr. Steven Kurtz said he believes these children suffer from "selective mutism" -- an extreme anxiety disorder often combined with social phobia.

"Selective mutism" is different from extreme shyness. Kurtz explained that shy kids will benefit from "warm up time" in ways that kids with selective mutism do not.

To treat kids with this condition, Kurtz created an intensive week-long therapy program in a simulated school-like setting for the Child Mind Institute in New York City. There are only 22 coveted spots for the five-day "boot camp," of which both Jake and Maya made the cut, and it could change the course of their lives. Some kids are prescribed anti-anxiety pills, but others, like Jake, take no medication.

"Our goal is to get out into the real world as quickly as possible," Kurtz said, "gradually exposing them to and giving them a lot of reinforcement, providing kind of training wheels, until they can do it confidently on their own." From day one, the first rule is for the counselors to let the painfully long silences continue long enough for the kids to answer questions. It's not what the question is, but how the question is asked. Yes/no questions lead to nodding, but forced choice questions prompt verbal answers -- and every mumble is praised. The hard part begins when the group leaves the building to interact with strangers. At the end of the day, kids are rewarded with stickers they earn at the "prize store."

Part of the therapy session is to re-train the parents to ignore their protective instincts to spare their child a painful silence.

No parent likes to see their child suffer, but Dr. Kurtz said that's essentially the answer. When any kid develops even a mild phobia, parents too often rescue them too soon. Instead, the grown-ups are taught to stop over-protecting their children, and simply wait five seconds before jumping in.

Both Jake and Maya made dramatic progress their first day in the program with responding to questions in short answers, but Maya suffered a setback when the anxiety overwhelmed her. But the camp is called "Brave Buddies" for a reason. After a change of clothes, Maya mustered up the courage to try again.

On day two, Jake still struggled to make eye contact, but then shocked everyone when he said a full sentence. Maya, who didn't utter a word for an entire school year, aced a "show and tell" of her Smurf doll.

The next day, with guidance of a Brave Buddy, Jake was able to order ice cream by himself for the first time, but his nerves got the better of him. By day four, Maya, the girl who was once terrified to blow out her own birthday candles, finally did it, but even by the last day, there were still moments when Maya disconnected and went mute.

After being shown videos of their once-quiet kids suddenly chatting away, some of the parents had tears in their eyes.

"You want to make sure that your child is happy and to see your child smiling," Maya's mother, Tessie Scroggins said. "That's another thing Maya didn't do in public. Maya didn't smile much."

"Brave Buddies" have not only helped Jake, Maya and other kids find their voices, but also helped them find their smiles.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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