Stuttering often misunderstood condition

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Stuttering is one of the most frustrating speech disorders. It is variable, complex and often misunderstood.

People who stutter often try to disguise it because it can be very embarrassing. Stuttering can have a devastating effect on self image, personal relationships and life choices. The man who really wanted to be a teacher, for example, instead became an accountant because he knew teaching would require a lot of talking.

So it’s no wonder parents become concerned when they notice their child repeating sounds, words or phrases. My hope is with the following facts such parents will feel more confident in helping their child develop into a confident, articulate speaker.

People who stutter are as smart and capable as anyone else. History is filled with exceptionally smart, talented and successful examples, including Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Love, John Stossel, Alan Rabinowitz, James Earl Jones, Joseph Biden, Carly Simon and many others.

Most people start stuttering between ages 2 and 4. If it’s going to go away by itself, it usually does so by ages 7 or 8. If it continues into the teen years, the child will most likely continue to stutter throughout adulthood.

Avoiding dealing with stuttering due to denial or a hope it will simply go away tends to make the problem worse. The good news is there are many options to productively manage stuttering.

We don’t know the exact cause of stuttering, but we know for certain that neither stutterers nor their parents cause it. Stuttering is a biological and neurological condition, not the result of bad parenting, a stressful childhood or a traumatic event. No one chooses to stutter and no one is to blame. While anxiety is not a cause, it may make stuttering more severe at times, such as during stressful situations like talking on the phone or speaking in front of a crowd.

Many children from ages 1½ to 5 experience a period of difficulty in speaking, with hesitations and repetitions of certain syllables, words or phrases. They might have a stuttering problem or might simply be going through a period of normal disfluency that most children experience as they learn to speak.

So how can we tell the difference?

The normally disfluent child occasionally repeats syllables or words once or twice, li-li-like this. Disfluencies might also include hesitancies and the use of fillers such as “uh”, “er,” or “um.” Disfluencies tend to come and go. They are usually signs that a child is learning to use language in new ways. If disfluencies disappear for several weeks, then return, the child may just be going through another state of learning.

A child with milder stuttering repeats sounds more than two or three times. Tension and struggle may be evident in the facial muscles, especially around the mouth. The pitch of the voice may rise with repetitions, and occasionally the child may experience a “block,” with no airflow or voice for several seconds. Disfluencies are more present than absent.

Parents can help the child with mild stuttering by modeling slow and relaxed speech, keeping it unhurried and with many pauses. Slow and relaxed speech can be the most effective when combined with some regular time each day for the child to have one parent’s undivided attention to do nothing else but listen to the child talk.

When your child talks to you or asks you a question, try to pause a second or so before you answer. This will help make talking less hurried and more relaxed. Try not to be upset or annoyed when stuttering increases. Your child is coping with learning many new skills all at the same time. If your child is frustrated or upset at times when stuttering is worse, offer reassurance. Some children respond well to hearing “I know it’s hard to talk at times, but lots of people get stuck on words ... it’s OK.” Other children are most reassured by a touch or hug.

If the child stutters on more than 10 percent of speech, stutters with considerable effort and tension, or avoids stuttering by changing words and using extra sounds or movements to get started, he or she would benefit from seeing a speech therapist with expertise in treating stuttering.

Evelyn Boyd is a speech-language pathologist at Walla Walla General Hospital.

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