"Stuttering" is a term applied to an interruption in the fluent flow of speech. While we all have dysfluencies (i.e., non-fluent speech moments) from time to time, some individuals have a more persistent struggle in this area. In most cases, dysfluencies first occur in young children between the ages of two and five years, as they learn and refine their speech. At this age, the dysfluencies may be considered "developmental" or a normal part of the "speech-learning" process. The young child may repeat words or phrases once or twice as he attempts to gather his thoughts for self expression (e.g., "Mommy, mommy, mommy." "Guess what, guess, guess what?") These repetitions are usually effortless and easy. Frequent insertions of "filler" sounds may also be heard as the child searches for the right words to use (e.g., "I saw...um...uh...it was um...like a big...uh... balloon!") Often, children will outgrow such "normal nonfluencies" with little to no intervention. However, some dysfluencies present more of a concern, as they may worsen or become a more persistent problem. In particular, a speech-language pathologist should be contacted if a child, adolescent, or adult exhibits one or more of the following:
- A worsening of the dysfluencies in terms of frequency (i.e., it is happening more often), duration (e.g., the dysfluencies have gone from lasting a half-second to several seconds, and/or the number of repetitions have increased), or severity (i.e., the dysfluencies have proceeded from phrase or whole-word repetitions to part-word repetitions, such as “ba-ba-baby”, or prolongations, such as “Wh-->y?”)
- Observable struggle when attempting to get the word out, as evidenced by signs such as a tightening of the muscles around the face and neck or the word seeming to “get stuck” in the throat or mouth
- Any avoidance of particular “feared” words and/or speaking in general
This is a common question among parents, and the answer is that no one can target one exact cause. Many theories exist about the cause of stuttering, but there may be some individuals who are predisposed to stuttering and certain triggers may result in the onset of stuttering. One trigger for stuttering may be genetics, as it tends to run in families. Another trigger may be language development. Stuttering occurs around the age when children are transitioning from one- and two-word utterances to more mature sentence structure. Dysfluent speech may result because of this increase in expressive language. Some children who stutter will become fluent without therapy intervention and some will need speech therapy to learn strategies to increase fluency.
The speech-language pathologist will first want to know the history of the individual’s stuttering problem (i.e., when it began, how it has changed, what affect it has had). A sample of the person’s speech will be taken through conversation, and older children and adults may also be asked to read a passage in order to obtain another speech sample. These samples will later be analyzed by the speech-language pathologist in order to determine the frequency, severity, and characteristics of the fluency problem, and a rating score will be applied.
The nature of stuttering therapy is dependent upon many factors, including the age of the individual, the severity of the problem, and the person’s motivation to improve his speech. For young children, parents are provided with suggestions for the appropriate handling of the child’s dysfluent moments and for helping the child become a more fluent speaker. During therapy sessions, specific techniques will be employed while engaging the child in fun, language-based activities. As an older child becomes more understanding and aware of his difficulties, he can be instructed in ways to achieve greater fluency and will learn how to prevent and work through moments of stuttering. Likewise, an adolescent or adult will learn to analyze factors affecting his fluency and will practice achieving fluent speech in a variety of communicative situations.
While it can be uncomfortable watching a child or any individual struggle with a fluency problem, it is important to maintain your eye contact with him and convey your patience. Allow the person as much time as is needed to express himself without interruption. By keeping your speech relatively slow and using frequent pauses, you will help relax the person, set a slower pace for the conversation, and alleviate a sense of time pressure. As always, make sure that what the person says is more important to you than how fluently he says it.