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The story on stuttering: What's normal and when to seek help

Published on: September 25, 2008

Chloe Whittaker first began stuttering when she was 2 and a half years old. Alarmed, her mother, Julie, immediately took her to the pediatrician, who said to wait and do nothing, that Chloe’s speech was normal for her age.Blond boy

When her stuttering didn’t subside after a year, Julie had Chloe evaluated by their local school district, and speech therapy was recommended. The speech-language pathologist (SLP) played games with Chloe that focused on promoting fluent speech. Later, he worked on the emotional fallout that often accompanies speech disorders. He also helped her deal with the teasing and taunts of her peers.

“It’s hard to say when we noticed an improvement in Chloe’s speech,” says Julie. “She has had times of total fluency, and each time we thought that maybe her stuttering was gone. Even today — she’s now 14 — we hope that she’ll achieve fluency. Most importantly, we want her to be able to communicate her ideas, dreams, concerns and joys with those around her.”

Many theories about the causes of stuttering have been proposed and much research has been done, yet its cause is still unclear.

“It is thought that stuttering most likely has a neurological origin, possibly due to structural or functional differences in the brain that appear to only affect the speech mechanism,” says Martin Nevdahl, a speech and hearing instructor at the University of Washington.

While stress, personality type, parenting practices and parenting communication do not cause stuttering, there seems to be a genetic component, as stuttering tends to run in families, says Nevdahl.

What’s normal?

When a child is learning to talk, it isn’t unusual for them to stutter. They may repeat words or phrases, such as “I, I want a cookie,” or “There’s a, there’s a fire truck.” They may also pause, use fillers like “um” or revise their words and phrases.

Early stuttering that should concern parents includes word and phrase repetitions, but also includes syllable and sound repetitions like “ma, ma, ma, mommy” or “ba, ba, ba, ball.” The child may hang on to the first sound, as in “mmmmommy” or try to articulate the initial sound of a word with nothing coming out, says Nevdahl.

Children may also acquire physical traits that accompany the stuttering, such as eye blinking, tapping or jerking any part of the body, says Kristin Perkins, a pediatric speech-language pathologist at Good Samaritan Hospital’s pediatric unit in Puyallup. “Typically they develop these around age 5 to help them get through the stutter,” she says.

If the stuttering is very noticeable at age 3 or 4 and if there’s a family history of stuttering, that’s the time to seek help, says Perkins.

Nevdahl says parents may receive conflicting advice, because many children who begin stuttering will recover without any intervention. Many parents, like Julie Whittaker, are told to wait and the stuttering will go away.

“And in many cases, this is true. But for those children who won’t recover on their own, early intervention is very important and can prevent the development of chronic stuttering,” says Nevdahl.

Parents should have their child evaluated by a speech-language pathologist who is experienced in working with stuttering. They’ll typically be asked to monitor their child’s speech for signs that the stuttering is either beginning to decline or showing signs of becoming chronic.

What parents can do

Nevdahl suggests parents use positive reinforcement when their child completes what he wants to say without stuttering. He can be rewarded with verbal reinforcement, like, “That was good, smooth talking,” or be given time to play a favorite game or an ice cream cone.

“This is the essence of the Lidcombe Program, which is used some in the United States and more extensively in Australia and Canada,” says Nevdahl. “Parents are taught how and when to reinforce the child’s correct speech.”

Recent research indicates that even in preschool, children who stutter may be teased or have their peers turn and walk away from them. It is common for people who stutter to develop social anxiety and fear of different speaking situations. Treating the stuttering early is one of the best ways to prevent the emotional impact it might have on the child.

“Support groups are another great aid that build self-confidence and provide the stutterer with a safe environment,” says Perkins.

When Chloe Whittaker was 7, she and her family attended a one-day family workshop in Tacoma put on by the National Stuttering Association.

Discovering other kids like her was “the best day of her life,” her mother says. Now Chloe gives back by assisting in those workshops, helping other kids who stutter and letting them know that they are not alone.

Heather Larson is a freelance writer in Tacoma who frequently writes about health and parenting issues. She has been published in Yoga Journal and Pregnancy.

Stuttering resources

National Center for Stuttering 

Stuttering Foundation of America 

National Stuttering Association

Friends: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter

The Lidcombe Program of Early Stuttering Intervention

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association 


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