Stuttering is a communication disorder that involves a breakdown in the continuity of the flow of speech. It is can be quite common, affecting approximately 11% of pre-schoolers and 1% of adults. In this introductory article, we will review the core characteristics and causes of stuttering, as well as discussing the importance of speech therapy for stuttering.
Characteristics of Stuttering
Stuttering is characterised by the unintentional stoppage of speech, and/or the repetition or prolongation of sounds, syllables, words or phrases. For instance, consider the sentence “Go to the park”. A person with a stutter could say this sentence in one of the following ways:
“G-g-g-go to the park”;
“Go-go-go to the park”;
“Go to- go- to- go to the park”;
“Go…..to the park”;
“G—–o (held) to the park”; or
“G….o (stuck) to the park”;
Also note that stuttering may be accompanied by other non-speech behaviours such as blinking, body movements, word avoidance or even giving up talking altogether. Speech avoidance occurs in anticipation of a stutter and is an attempt by the individual to refrain from stuttering. It can include the substitution of words that are known to be difficult with less-feared words, as well as the use of interjections (“um”, “like”, “you know”) and the addition of pauses within or between words. Furthermore, speech avoidance can extend into situation avoidance, where a person will avoid doing certain activities which they know are likely to exacerbate their stutter.
What Causes a Stutter?
There is no known cause of stuttering, but research suggests that it occurs through multiple factors combining to create difficulties in coordinating aspects of speech production. One of these factors can be genetics, so if a family member – immediate or extended – stutters, it may increase the chance of a child developing this disorder too. Just as influential are situational factors; events which disturb a person’s energy levels or state of emotional arousal may have a notable effect upon their stutter. The onset of stuttering can be sudden or gradual, and it is important to bear in mind is that some children may naturally recover from stuttering shortly after onset. However, there is no way to be certain which children will recover naturally. Stuttering assessment is therefore beneficial to determine whether treatment is required, as opposed to a period of active monitoring. If the stutter has persistent for longer than four months, it is important that the individual sees a Speech-Language Therapist for advice and guidance.
Speech Therapy for Stuttering
As mentioned above, the first step in stuttering treatment is assessment. Stuttered speech may include several not-so-obvious characteristics, and hence requires the input of a qualified Speech-Language Therapist to diagnose. In order to assess a person’s stutter, the Speech-Language Therapist will assess the nature of their stuttering, as well as gathering information about the way the person copes or reacts to the stutter in various situations. With this information, the Therapist will decide whether or not it is appropriate to commence treatment.
For younger children, stuttering treatment typically involves training parents to provide on-the-spot feedback to their child about their fluency of speech. On the other hand, stuttering therapy for adults and older children aims to directly teach them new skills that lead to stutter-free oral communication. For example, a Speech-Language Therapist may teach people who stutter to monitor and/or slow the rate at which they speak. Stuttering treatment for adults and older children also typically involves assistance as they build more positive emotions and attitudes about talking.
For many people who stutter, their speech may give rise to frustration and a sense of isolation in being unable to converse effectively with others. Fortunately, therapy is available to reduce the severity of stuttering and improve the quality of life for people who stutter. Speech therapy has allowed many to manage their stuttering at very low levels, or eliminate it all together. The take-home message is this: With the right support, all people can learn to become more confident in their communication skills, and to participate in their lives to the fullest.