Stuttering

Dear Dr. B: Can you please tell me about stuttering? Why do people stutter and can it be cured? Yours, Mr. H.

Dear Mr. H: According to Webster’s dictionary, to stutter means to speak or utter with spasmodic repetition as a result of excitement or impediment.

Stuttering is a disturbance in the normal fluency and time patterning of speech that is inappropriate for the person’s age. The speech disruptions may be accompanied by rapid eye blinks, tremors of the lips and/or jaw or other struggle behaviours of the face or upper body that a person who stutters may use in an attempt to speak. Stutters can predict 95 percent of the words over which they will stutter.

An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) quotes a study involving 1879 university students showing prevalence of self-reported stuttering of 2 percent. Information picked up from Encyclopaedia Britannica suggests that over three million Americans stutter.

Stuttering affects individuals of all ages but occurs most frequently in young children between the ages of 2 and 6 who are developing language. Boys are three times more likely to stutter than girls. Most children, however, outgrow their stuttering, and it is estimated that less than 1 percent of adults stutter.

Some successful famous stutters are: Winston Churchill, actress Marilyn Monroe, actors James Earl Jones, Bruce Willis and Jimmy Stewart. But in some, stuttering can interfere with academic and professional development and social communication and interaction.

What causes stuttering?

There are varieties of possible causes of stuttering but the precise mechanisms causing stuttering are not understood. Stuttering can be developmental or acquired.

Developmental stuttering is by far the commonest and may or may not be associated with psychiatric illness. Developmental stuttering occurs in children who are in the process of developing speech and language. Acquired stuttering in previously fluent individuals may be as a result of brain damage due to variety of causes including head injury and stroke.

Some stuttering may be hereditary but no gene or genes for stuttering has yet been found.

Speech-language pathologist, a professional who is specially trained to test and treat individuals with voice, speech and language disorders, makes a diagnosis of stuttering. If you suspect your child to have speech problems then the best thing is to consult your family doctor or your paediatrician and get a referral to a speech-language pathologist.

What is the treatment for stuttering?

In Roman times, stutteres were thought to be possessed by evil spirits that had to be exorcised. In the Middle Ages the tongue, thought to be the source of the problem, was tortured with hot irons and spices, says the article in Encyclopaedia Britannica.

The CMAJ article says that between 50 and 80 percent of children with developmental stuttering will recover with or without professional treatment, generally before puberty.

To prevent developmental stuttering from becoming a life-long problem, speech evaluation is recommended for children who stutter for longer than six months or for those whose stuttering is accompanied by struggle behaviours. Developmental stuttering is often treated by educating parents about restructuring the child’s speaking environment to reduce the episodes of stuttering.

Stuttering is something people do not want to talk about. I knew very little about the subject myself! So, thank you Mr. H for asking the question. And you can obtain more information from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (National Institutes of Health) web site (www.nih.gov/nidcd).

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