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08-01-2022 | Original Article Open Access

Frozen with Fear? Attentional Mechanisms in Children with Selective Mutism

Cognitive Therapy and Research
Felix Vogel, Angelika Gensthaler, Christina Schwenck
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Supplementary Information

The online version contains supplementary material available at https://​doi.​org/​10.​1007/​s10608-021-10289-3.

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Children with selective mutism (SM) are consistently unable to speak in certain social situations. Due to an overlap between SM and social anxiety disorder (SAD) in children, similar mechanisms could apply to both disorders. Especially biased attentional processing of threat and fear-induced reduced visual exploration (referred to as attentive freezing) appear promising in SM.


A total of N = 84 children (8–12 years, SM: n = 28, SAD: n = 28, typical development (TD): n = 28) participated in an eye-tracking paradigm with videos of a social counterpart expressing a question, a social evaluation or a neutral statement. We investigated gaze behavior towards the social counterpart’s eye-region and the extent of visual exploration (length of scanpath), across conditions.


There were no group differences regarding gaze behavior on the eye region. Neither gaze behavior with respect to the eye region nor visual exploration were dependent on the video condition. Compared to children with TD, children with SM generally showed less visual exploration, however children with SAD did not.


Reduced visual exploration might be due to the mechanism of attentive freezing, which could be part of an extensive fear response in SM that might also affect speech-production. Interventions that counteract the state of freezing could be promising for the therapy of SM.

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