The recent Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech shone a bright light on the stutterer’s plight. In the film, King George VI of England suffered from a crippling fear of public speaking because of his pronounced stammer. After intense treatment with an unorthodox therapist, his stuttering greatly improved. The film showed us that there was hope for George VI; indeed, there’s hope for today’s stutterers, too.
Most cases of stuttering — about 90 percent — begin between the ages of 2 and 5, according to Seattle Children’s speech and language pathologist Elyse Lambeth. “People ask us if we use the same techniques [as in the film],” she says. “We use different, more effective techniques now. Stuttering therapy has come a long way.” King George VI’s affliction was the exception rather than the rule, she adds; most stutterers regain fluency by age 5.
The predominant question Lambeth is asked about stuttering is “Will it go away by itself?” Generally, if stuttering lasts longer than six months, it’s more likely to stick around, says Lambeth. Stuttering can be hereditary as well, and if there is a relative whose stuttering continued through adulthood, the child’s stuttering is more likely to last. Boys are less likely to experience a spontaneous recovery than girls, Lambeth says.
Bothell mom Susie* struggled with the prospect of speech therapy for her 3-year-old daughter, Kate, who started stuttering at age 2 and a half. Sometimes she’d get stuck on a word, sometimes just a syllable. The stuttering escalated quickly. But just when Susie decided to send Kate to speech therapy, the stuttering ended as quickly as it began.
Susie’s family did consult a speech therapist and learned that such spontaneous stuttering is not unusual during the preschool years, especially in extremely verbal children. The stuttering comes with brain development and typically indicates that the physical act of speech can’t catch up with the child’s thoughts. In Susie’s daughter’s case, when her thoughts caught up to her speech, the stuttering stopped.
Why do we stutter?
Speech and language experts are not sure what causes stuttering. “It’s multifaceted,” says Lambeth. “Sometimes there’s a genetic predisposition; researchers found that the wiring between stutterers’ brain hemispheres is different than non-stutterers.” Children with other speech and language difficulties — such as inability to articulate and limited vocabulary — can develop a stutter. Children who develop language early often experience a disconnect between language abilities in their brain and the motor skills required to articulate language. In general, experts say, psychological issues don’t cause stuttering, but stressful situations, such as speaking to a group or feeling pressured, can exacerbate a stutter.
The right response
The way in which a family responds to stuttering is important. “I wasn’t quite sure what to do when [my son] first began stuttering” at the age of 4, says Vancouver mom Lisa*. “I researched stuttering online as much as possible, and we tried to find help.” Lisa’s speech pathologist told her that her family should listen patiently when her son stuttered and resist the urge to “help” or jump in.
Lisa also tries not to call attention to the stuttering. “That makes him self-conscious,” she says. Over time, Lisa noticed that her son would begin to stutter, stop himself and think of an alternate word that came more easily.
If stuttering lasts more than six months, continues beyond age 5, causes fear and avoidance or there’s an adult stutterer in the family, get help, Lambeth advises. Treatments vary by age, but probably won’t be as dramatic as the methods shown in The King’s Speech.
For preschoolers, therapy focuses on the family. “Your child will speak as quickly as you do, and stutterers have a hard time speaking quickly,” Lambeth said. She encourages family members to slow their speech. Lisa knows how difficult this can be. “I tend to speak very quickly and have had to make a conscious effort to slow down, to help [my son] slow down his own rate of speech,” she said.
It’s also difficult for stutterers to jump into a conversation. Professionals work with families to encourage taking turns talking to give a stuttering child more time and less pressure to speak. Families are also encouraged to free up their child’s schedule to combat the constant feeling of time pressure. If a stuttering child’s life is hectic, he’ll feel pressured all the time, and it will manifest itself in his speech. Finally, positive reinforcement works for children who stutter, so families are instructed to praise instances of language fluency.
By the time children are of school age, therapists can teach them to respond to tension in their bodies and learn to “go with the flow,” to relax and slow down so they can speak.
*Not her real name
Maria Bellos Fisher is a mom, blogger and freelance writer. The last article she wrote for ParentMap was “Purée and Simple” in the February 2011 issue. Visit her blog, Hereditary Insanity, at mariabellosfisher.com/blog.