Selective mutism is an often misdiagnosed childhood anxiety disorder that, if left untreated, can lead to bigger behavioral problems down the road, KERO 23 reported.
Gina Mallon first noticed the quiet change in her daughter Emily back in kindergarten.
"She would get very upset if she thought someone heard her voice," Mallon said.
Doctors told Mallon her daughter was shy, and she would outgrow it. But when Emily's grades dropped because she wouldn't speak in class, her parents knew better.
Emily was finally diagnosed as selectively mute. She can't speak in school because anxiety overwhelms her.
"Kids suffering from selective mutism will tell you that they're scared, they don't know why, their words are stuck, their body won't let them get the words out," psychologist Elisa Shipon-Blum said.
Shipon-Blum said her daughter Sophia didn't utter a peep in school for three years.
"The doctor said, could be severe learning disabilities, could be autism. I went from person to person and as a physician I knew that Sophia didn't have any of this," Shipon-Blum said.
Frustrated, Shipon-Blum did some research. Now, she treats kids with the anxiety disorder, has written several books and is medical director of the Selective Mutism Network -- giving voice to the problem over the Internet.
"One of the goals of our organization is to promote early diagnosis, because the earlier the treatment the better," she said.
Behavioral therapy can ease anxiety and break the silence, Shipon-Blum added.
It's not a quick fix. But it worked for Sophia, who is no longer mute.
Emily, now 13, didn't get the proper help until well after her diagnosis, but she is slowly making progress, KERO 23 reported.
"She nods to people when they ask her a question, whereas before, you would get the blank stare," Mallon said.
It's a major step toward letting Emily have her say.
Experts say seven in 1,000 kids are selectively mute. However, many of them believe that estimate is low because of the lack of awareness and misdiagnosis of the problem.