Stammering: Learning To Live With It

What It Is:

Stammering is “characterized by stoppages and disruptions in fluency which interrupt the smooth flow and timing of speech. These stoppages may take the form of repetitions of sounds, syllables or words, or of prolongations of sounds so that words seem to be stretched out, and can involve silent blocking of the airflow of speech when no sound is heard” (Enderby, 1996). Speech may sound forced, tense or jerky. People who stammer may avoid certain words or situations which they know will cause them difficulty. Stammering is a British word. Instead, Americans use the word “stuttering”.

Some people avoid and substitute words to such an extent that people in their lives may not realize they have a stammer. This is known as “covert stammering”.

Myths about stammering

All research indicates that the stammering and the non-stammering populations are identical in terms of intelligence, mental state, neurotic behavior etc. The only difference found is that one group stammers and the other doesn’t, but no explanation for this has as yet been identified.
This contradicts the popular perception that people who stammer are less intelligent, more nervous etc. Speed of speech should not be confused with speed of thought. A person who stammers will generally think at normal speed, even though expression of the thoughts may be slower.

Demography:

5% of children under the age of five will go through a phase of stammering at some stage in their speech and language development. Stammering shows strong gender bias. Under the age of five, a boy is twice as likely to suffer from stammering as a girl. However, with the increase in age, this ratio becomes more skewed with men’s chances of stammering about 3.5 to 4 times those of women. Of the adult population in U.K. nearly 1% suffers from stammering.

Causes:

Till date, medical science has not been able to find the cause of stammering. Research seems to suggest that a combination of factors is involved.
Genetics are relevant at least in some cases. Someone with stammering in the family seems more likely to develop a stammer themselves. Brain imaging studies have shown significant differences between the brain activity of people stammering as compared with fluent speakers.

Therapy:

Children showing early signs of stammering should be referred to a speech and language therapist (SLT) as early as possible. Speech and language therapy has proved to be most effective with children aged under 5 years. In many cases when the problem is caught early enough (before psychological issues of anxiety and self consciousness arise) the child is able to learn to speak fluently again with no evidence of recurrence.

For both older children and adults who stammer, the situation is more complex. Modern therapy can help improve fluency, confidence and communication skills but as stammering is more established by this stage it becomes more a case of learning to manage it effectively. While speech and language therapy can continue to make a positive difference in older children and adults, there is no magical ‘cure’ for stammering. The most difficult problems that such people face is that of dealing with inferiority complex. They are advised to be part of some self help group which are now common in cities. If there is no such group, they can take the lead and form one instead.