As a young child, Donna Gould, 67, from Matawan, New Jersey, had a severe stutter. “I could not even get the simple words out, like ‘the’ or ‘it,’” she says. “As much as I tried to talk, the words just stayed stuck in my head, and when I did speak, the stuttering occurred.”
Weekly speech therapy helped her overcome the embarrassing problem that affects people of all ages. But the trauma of stuttering doesn’t always fade away.
“I still remember distinctly how horrible it was. You could think of the words in your mind, but no matter what you did or how much you wanted to speak to someone, the words would come out in a complete stutter,” recalls Gould.
Stuttering is a complicated neurological process that remains poorly understood. However, “Most of the time, stuttering is a normal part of childhood language development,” says Harry Broome, M.D., a pediatrician in Phoenix, Ariz., and professor at the University of Arizona.
There are three types of stuttering:
- Sound syllable repetitions (ex: m-m-m-m-m-m-mommy)
- Audible sound prolongations (ex: aaaaand)
- Inaudible sound prolongations (ex: b—–ut)
All children with developmental stuttering, which typically begins between ages 2 and 5 years of age, begin by using only sound syllable repetitions, says John Atchley, MA, a speech-language pathologist and managing director of Stuttering Pros in Chicago. Additionally, adds Dr. Broome, boys develop stuttering more commonly than girls. But what causes stuttering to begin with?
“A common myth is that emotions cause stuttering, and that’s just not true,” says Atchley.
In fact, emotions aren’t at the root of stuttering, and it’s never volitional or the result of stress or bad parenting.
“Stuttering may cause anxiety and can worsen it in stressful situations, however it’s not the result of trauma, stress or anxiety,” says Dr. Broome. “It’s also not low IQ’s.”
“Stuttering is occasionally associated with other underlying neurologic or learning disorders, but it is very often genetic,” says Dr. Broome.
Stopping the Stutter
So if your child starts to stutter, what’s a parent to do? Developmental stuttering is caused by uncoordinated muscles used for speaking. That means that once the muscles become more mature, the likelihood of outgrowing the problem improves. In fact, 50 to 80 percent of children who stutter will spontaneously recover or outgrow the stuttering within the first 6 months to year-and-a-half of onset, says Atchley.
And if they don’t? Dr. Broome says his first course of action is reassurance, patience, and minimal intervention.
“Rushing a stuttering child or completing words and sentences for them is not helpful,” he says.
Similarly, telling a child to speak more slowly and deliberately is not effective. “Supportive and active listening, and maintaining good eye contact works best to build the child’s confidence and self-esteem. If they are self-aware or self-conscious, letting them know that they are doing just fine speaking can be very comforting,” says Dr. Broome. Speaking slowly and clearly in front of the child, serving as a model for clear speech, is also helpful.
It’s time for speech therapy if the condition worsens or fails to improve after a year, if it persists into school age (5 to 6 years), or if it is associated with abnormal facial muscle movements or other developmental concerns, he adds.
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“Children who are quite aware of what they’re going through should also be referred [to a specialist]. If the child has a family history of persistent stuttering, they should be referred as well.”
Although stuttering that persists into adolescence is not usually curable, therapy can be helpful. Treatments for stuttering are generally decided after a speech/language evaluation. Most intervention is “behavioral”, says speech pathologist, Avivit Ben-Aharon, MS Ed., clinical director, Gr8 Speech Inc., an online speech therapy company.
“A person is taught specific skills or behaviors that lead to improved oral communication,” says Ben-Aharon.
For example a child may be taught to control and or monitor the rate at which they speak. Or breathing at a rhythmic pace may also be taught.
“Singing has sometimes been found to be effective as well,” she says. “The use of TeleSpeech, speech therapy using innovative and secure web conferencing technology, has been found to be effective in the treatment of children or adults who stutter.”
“The most important thing is that the child knows they have a lot to say and that people want to hear them,” says Ben-Aharon. “Kids who stutter want to be heard, but are often afraid to speak up. So encouragement can be the best medicine.”