Muteness or mutism (from Latin mutus 'silent') is defined as an absence of speech while conserving or maintaining the ability to hear the speech of others. Mutism is typically understood as an inability to speak on the part of a child or an adult due to an observed lack of speech from the point of view of others who know them. Such observers commonly include a mute person's family members, caregivers, teachers, and health professionals like doctors or speech and language pathologists. Muteness may not be a permanent condition, depending upon etiology (cause). In general, someone who is mute may be mute for one of several different reasons: organic, psychological, developmental/ neurological. For children, a lack of speech may be developmental, neurological, psychological, or due to a physical disability or a communication disorder. For adults who previously had speech and then became unable to speak, loss of speech may be due to injury, disease, termed aphasia, or surgery affecting areas of the brain needed for speech. Loss of speech in adults may occur rarely for psychological reasons.

Treatment or management of muteness depends on what has caused the absence of speech. When there is an absence of speech, a speech assessment is strongly recommended to determine cause and treatment. Treatment of absence of speech is possible in a variety of cases. If the absence of speech is determined to be a permanent condition, a range of assistive and augmentative communication devices are available to aid communication.

Organic causes

Organic causes of mutism may stem from several different sources. One cause of muteness may be problems with the physiognomy involved in speech, for example, the mouth or tongue. Mutism may be due to apraxia, that is, problems with coordination of muscles involved in speech. Another cause may be a medical condition impacting the physical structures involved in speech, for example, loss of voice due to the injury, paralysis, or illness of the larynx. Anarthria is a severe form of dysarthria. The coordination of movements of the mouth and tongue or the conscious coordination of the lungs are damaged.

Neurological damage due to stroke may cause loss or impairment of speech, termed aphasia. Neurological damage or problems with development of the area of the brain involved in speech production, Broca's area, may cause muteness. Trauma or injury to Broca's area, located in the left inferior frontal cortex of the brain, can cause muteness. Muteness may follow brain surgery. For example, there is a spectrum of possible neurobehavioural deficits in the posterior fossa syndrome in children following cerebellar tumor surgery.

Psychological causes

When children do not speak, psychological problems or emotional stress, such as anxiety, may be involved. Children may not speak due to suffering from selective mutism. Selective mutism is a condition in which the child speaks only in certain situations or with certain people, such as close family members. Assessment is needed to rule out possible illness or other conditions and to determine treatment. Prevalence is low, but not as rare as once thought. Selective mutism should not be confused with a child who does not speak and cannot speak due to physical disabilities. It is common for symptoms to occur before the age of five. Not all children express the same symptoms.

Selective mutism may occur in conjunction with autism spectrum disorder or other diagnoses. Differential diagnosis between selective mutism and language delay associated with autism or other disorders is needed to determine appropriate treatment.

Adults who previously had speech and subsequently ceased talking may not speak for psychological or emotional reasons, though this is rare as a cause for adults. Absence or paucity of speech in adults may also be associated with specific psychiatric disorders.

Developmental and neurological causes

Absence of speech in children may involve communication disorders or language delays. Communication disorders or developmental language delays may occur for several different reasons.

Language delays may be associated with other developmental delays. For example, children with Down syndrome often have impaired language and speech.

Children with autism, categorized as a neurodevelopmental disorder in the DSM-V, often demonstrate language delays. Recent studies have found that autistic children with language delays are often more able to benefit from treatment services to help build language than was previously believed.


For language delays or communication disorders in children, early assessment is strongly recommended. Language delays may impact expressive language, receptive language, or both. Communication disorders may impact articulation, fluency (stuttering) and other specified and unspecified communication disorders. Treatment focuses on the diagnosed condition. For example, speech and language services may focus on the production of speech sounds for children with phonological challenges. Overall, early intervention for young children with language or other developmental delays is strongly recommended.

For toddlers with language delay who may also be autistic, early intervention services focusing on speech production is strongly recommended. When absence of speech is observed in children who may also be autistic, assessment is also strongly recommended. Intervention services and treatment programs have been specifically developed for autistic children with language delays. For example, pivotal response treatment is a well-established and researched intervention that includes family participation. Mark Sundberg's verbal behavior framework is another well-established assessment and treatment modality that is incorporated into many applied behavior analysis (ABA) early intervention treatment programs for young children with autism and communication challenges.

Treatment for absence of speech due to apraxia, involves assessment, and, based on the assessment, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and/or speech therapy. Treatment for selective mutism involves assessment, counseling, and positive supports. Treatment for absence of speech in adults who previously had speech involves assessment to determine cause, including medical and surgery related causes, followed by appropriate treatment or management. Treatment may involve counseling, or rehabilitation services, depending upon cause of loss of speech.


Management involves the use of appropriate assistive devices, called alternative and augmentative communications. Suitability and appropriateness of modality will depend on users' physical abilities and cognitive functioning.

Augmentative and alternative communication technology ranges from elaborated software for tablets to enable complex communication with an auditory component to less technologically involved strategies. For example, a common method involves the use of pictures that can be attached to velcro strips to create an accessible communication modality that does not require the cognitive or fine motor skills needed to manipulate a tablet.

Speech-generating devices can help people with speech deficiencies associated with medical conditions that affect speech, communication disorders that impair speech, or surgeries that have impacted speech. Speech-generating devices continue to improve in ease of use.

See also

  • Aphasia
  • Aphonia
  • Augmentative and alternative communication
  • Autism
  • Deafness
  • Developmental disability
  • Dysarthria
  • Dyslalia
  • Speech delay
  • Vocal cord paresis