What is stuttering? Most likely we’ve all encountered a person who stutters and perhaps we’ve had stuttering episodes ourselves. Stuttering is actually a speech disorder caused by “disfluencies.” Disfluencies are interruptions in the smooth cadence of speech caused by repetition of a word or syllable. Pauses between words are also disfluencies. We’ve all used the sounds “um” or “uh” from time to time and occasional use of these sounds does not necessarily impede communication. However, when a person uses too many of them, communication problems arise.
Stuttering usually begins in childhood as early as 18 months of age. In some cases the stuttering stops at age five but for other children it does not stop. Frustrated parents are left to understand the nature of stuttering and subsequent therapies to help their child maximize communication. Left untreated, an elementary school student, for example, is likely to be embarrassed by other children who tease or bully the child. Here are some symptoms to look for in the event you believe your child needs intervention:
• Child changes word or sentence structure because they anticipate stuttering
• Child avoids situations where they might be required to speak
• Disfluencies became more frequent
• Child finds speaking difficult and stressful
• Tension in the voice becomes evident
Partial word repetition occurs when the child is having difficulty moving from a consonant to the remainder of a word. An example is “G-G-Go over there.” By the third G, they are able to complete the word “go.” Sound prolongation occurs when the child again, is unable to complete a word. An example is “SSSSo why not?”
Parents can help their stuttering child by not putting pressure on them to speak perfectly all the time. They should allow communication to be fun. Using family meals to share fun conversation provides a natural relaxed setting for the child to develop confidence when speaking. Parent can also help by avoiding interruptions or harsh criticism and dictates such as “don’t talk so fast.” A more relaxed calm family atmosphere at home might also improve stuttering.
A diagnosis of stuttering may be done on a topical level by a parent or caregiver. However, a full professional diagnosis should be made by a certified speech-language pathologist. A series of tests and observations will determine the depth of the disorder and the likelihood that it will continue into adulthood. Treatments are behavioral as the child learns self awareness of their speech habits. Instruction may include breath measurements, slowing speech, lessening tension and using shorter phrases or sentences.
If stuttering continues after speech therapy fails to produce positive results, other causes should be examined. For example, could social phobia or an underlying mental illness cause the stuttering? While there is no research to support these causes in children, research is available for adults and one could infer that the adult stuttering might well have commenced in childhood. In one study (32 adults) 60% of participants had social phobia issues and in another study (64 adults) 66% had mental health disorders. While these studies claim no direct correlation between children and adult, a child that is non responsive to speech therapy might do well to seek the counsel of a certified child psychologist.
Colin B. Denney, Ph.D., is the Director of the Pacific Psychology Services Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, he is a Child Psychologist Honolulu.