Ep. 170: Understanding Selective Mutism with Dr. Danielle Cornacchio

Jan 30, 2024 | 0 comments

If your child is afraid to speak around certain people, like adults or strangers, or in certain situations, like at school, they may be struggling with selective mutism. Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder characterized by an inability to speak in certain settings and to certain people. It is commonly misunderstood as shyness or a child could even be misdiagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. But what exactly is selective mutism and how can we tell the difference? 

Today’s guest helps demystify selective mutism and offers a lot of insight into ways we can help children thrive.

Dr. Danielle Cornacchio is the newest member of ChildNEXUS! She is a clinical child psychologist specializing in evidence-based treatments for childhood anxiety, OCD, and disruptive behavior disorders. Dr. Cornacchio has particular expertise in behavioral treatment for childhood selective mutism.

In this episode, Dr. Cornacchio explains what selective mutism is, but perhaps more importantly, she explains what it is not. She takes the time to describe what treatment for selective mutism might look like and emphasizes the importance of parent education and participation. Listen to learn more about this often misunderstood condition.

 

Show Notes:

[2:27] – Selective mutism is classified as an anxiety disorder. It is a consistent failure to speak in certain situations despite speaking fine in others.

[4:03] – Selective mutism is not Autism Spectrum Disorder or Oppositional Defiance Disorder. It is often misunderstood or misdiagnosed.

[7:13] – Kids with selective mutism will typically speak around their parents and siblings at home but won’t speak at school.

[11:24] – Information and research on treatment for selective mutism is very new but Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is the most beneficial.

[14:04] – Dr. Cornacchio shares some of the ways selective mutism shows up including learning situations where talking is not necessary and something called contamination.

[17:58] – Therapy sessions once a week are not enough if parents and family members are not also working with a child at home.

[21:14] – It’s human nature to want to protect your children and reduce their stress, but to overcome challenges, children need to step out of their comfort zones.

[24:13] – Dr. Cornacchio demonstrates the steps in early therapy sessions with children with selective mutism including behavior descriptions and labeled praise.

[26:34] – The type of question that we ask a child who is ready to speak really matters.

[28:11] – Giving children ample time to answer a question can be uncomfortable for parents.

[29:29] – After 5 seconds of wait time, if the child does not answer, Dr. Cornacchio demonstrates how to rephrase the question and try something different.

[31:47] – But what happens if the child still does not answer a question after different strategies?

[33:29] – Teachers do not have the luxury of trying questions multiple times and waiting for answers. But there is a Plan B for teachers to not ever give up on a question.

[37:37] – It is important to connect with a provider, but it is challenging to find one that treats selective mutism.

 

About Our Guest:

Dr. Cornacchio completed her PhD in Clinical Science in Child and Adolescent Psychology at Florida International University and her predoctoral internship training at the UCLA Semel Institute. She currently serves as a clinical instructor at the UCLA Psychology Department. Dr. Cornacchio founded and currently directs The WaveMind Clinic in Los Angeles, a clinic dedicated to providing specialized care to children and families with a variety of mental health needs, including selective mutism, OCD, and disruptive behavior disorders. She directs a training program for psychology students and postdoctoral trainees learning Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) and treatment for childhood selective mutism. Dr. Cornacchio leads training for educators and professionals interested in learning more about how to treat selective mutism. Dr. Cornacchio’s research interests focus on innovative treatment formats for difficult-to-treat child anxiety. She conducted the first randomized controlled trial of an intensive group treatment program for children with selective mutism and is currently co-authoring a manual that’s in press on the delivery of intensive treatment for children with selective mutism. 

 

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The Diverse Thinking Different Learning podcast is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or legal advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Additionally, the views and opinions expressed by the host and guests are not considered treatment and do not necessarily reflect those of ChildNEXUS, Inc or the host, Dr. Karen Wilson.