Selective mutism conference to be first of its kind in Canada

A Brock conference on selective mutism (SM) will bring together people who experience, care for and want to treat the condition, which estimates show may have affected more than half a million Canadians in 2015.

The American Psychiatric Association defines SM as an anxiety condition that persistently prevents a child from speaking in social situations despite having the ability to speak with immediate family members and close others in private settings.

For keynote speaker and founder of the Selective Mutism Foundation Poling Bork (BSc ’02, MEd ’08, PhD ’16), the definition only touches on the high risk and impact that can accompany selective mutism.

“My oldest daughter almost drowned in a neighbour’s pool because of her SM. She couldn’t ask for help even though she wanted and tried to,” says Bork, a Senior Lab Instructor in Brock’s Department of Computer Science. “No matter how shy a child is, in an emergency, they can talk and cry for help. What happens to kids with SM if they become separated from their families at a mall or an amusement park?”

A portrait of Poling Bork.

Keynote speaker Poling Bork is the founder of a non-profit foundation to support families and research into selective mutism.

Bork’s children all experienced the condition even though they were fluent in three languages and able to speak around trusted individuals.

She now has nearly two decades of experience treating children personally and professionally and is currently researching the use of virtual reality technology in the treatment of SM.

Bork will also soon publish a book detailing the 130-minute method she uses to successfully treat children even in cases where previous interventions have failed.

“Most researchers and clinicians use similar techniques to treat SM, which can take weeks, months or years, if they work at all,” says Bork. “My goal is to help other parents so they don’t have to go through the same daunting journey that my kids and I went through.”

Clinical Neuropsychologist and Associate Professor Dawn Good in Brock’s Department of Psychology and the Centre for Neuroscience says the past 10 years have seen an increase in targeted research and practice in the area of SM.

“It’s definitely timely to begin to promote and share this knowledge in order to both inform the community of their treatment options and to accelerate interest in moving this research forward,” says Good.

The conference is designed for children and adults who have experienced selective mutism, as well as family members, educators, child and youth workers, health-care professionals, mental health care providers, researchers and those developing technology to support treatment.

“I am excited to share research with respect to our current understanding of SM and the technological advances regarding effective treatment options targeting this otherwise ‘invisible’ pediatric challenge, and to do so within the Canadian context,” says Good.

The daylong event takes place in person at Brock on Saturday, May 7. Conference registration is open until Monday, April 25.

The conference is hosted by the Faculty of Social Sciences thanks to funding from the Strategic Dean’s Discretionary Fund, with additional generous support from Norgen Biotek, the Faculty of Education, the Faculty of Mathematics and Science and the Selective Mutism Foundation.

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