Mutism is not entirely uncommon within the autistic community, and some autists are diagnosed with selective mutism. The name suggests that there is some control over when and where they speak, but that is not the case. Situational mutism may be a more apt name. Some autistic children may talk at home, but not at school. Some autistic people only talk around people deemed “safe”, while others may mask their need to not talk and tend to only be mute when they are around people who are “safe” to be mute around.
Ability to talk for someone who has mutism can be based around lots of things – anxiety, especially social anxiety, sensory input, and general tiredness amongst others.
A long, difficult day might mean your brain is so busy processing information you can’t say much by the evening, especially if it has been emotive and draining. Around others, there might be pressure to be very verbal, and they may mask a physical need to stop talking and force themselves to carry on, leaving them unable to verbalise later on in the day.
Or there might be anxiety around saying the wrong thing. For someone worried about making a mistake, often not doing anything is the most effective way of avoiding errors. You can’t say the wrong thing if you are not saying anything at all.
Or your brain may be so filled with masking other things like holding in meltdowns, stimming or processing sensory stimuli that it leaves no space to talk.
If someone in your life has selective mutism, it is important to value the times they are verbal and respect the times they are not. When someone cannot verbalise what they want to, it can be very distressing or annoying. Being understanding and offering other forms of communication is incredibly useful.
Some autistic adults are known to text other people in the same room as them when they cannot verbalise. Sure, it’s a little different for most people, but if the autist feels respected, accepted and still able to contribute, then it’s ok to communicate this way.
The Picture Exchange Communication System, Makaton, apps like LetMeTalk, or any other way to communicate is fine too, and there is no evidence that using alternative or augmented communication methods slows down the development of spoken language.
The important thing is that communication in all forms is valid, and that we recognise that inability to verbalise is not rudeness, shyness, or a choice. For some autists, selective mutism is just a part of their lived experience and it’s important that appropriate supports are put in as necessary.