Stuttering consists of transient interruptions to the flow (fluency) of speech. Stuttered speech is characterised by one or more of the following: repetitions of sounds or syllables, for example “I – I – I – I want it”, sound prolongations, for example “whaaaat’s that?”, and blocks, when the speaker seems to get “stuck” and unable to get the word out, for example “it’s _ _ _ mine.” Redundant head and facial movements also may accompany stuttered speech.
When does it start?
Children usually begin to stutter in early childhood, around the time they are putting short sentences together. The onset of stuttering may be gradual or sudden. It may be cyclical in nature – starting, stopping for a time, and then starting again – or it may be consistently present, with or without fluctuations in severity. Around 70% of children recover naturally within a few years but it is not possible to predict whether an individual child will recover without treatment. If stuttering persists into adulthood it can cause associated social and anxiety-related difficulties such as avoiding talking in front of the class, fear of using the telephone, negative self-image. Children may be mocked or bullied because of their stuttering, even in the pre-school years. Stuttering is legally a disability in Australia and in many other countries.
What causes it?
The exact cause of stuttering is still unknown. However, recent brain research suggests there is a slight and transient connectivity problem in the areas of the brain underpinning speech production. Stuttering is not caused by anxiety or emotional trauma but may be worsened by fatigue, excitement, or anxiety. In fact, the speech of both stutterers and non-stutterers alike can be more disfluent in such situations. Most people who stutter are genetically predisposed to stuttering in much the same way that asthma can run in a family.
Interventions and programs for stuttering
There are a number of programs and other interventions to assist people who stutter and their families across the lifespan. More information about these, can be found on the Resources page of this website.
What should parents do?
Research indicates that that parents should contact a speech pathologist as soon as practicable if their child starts to stutter. It can be a distressing time for parents. There is a well established and researched program for pre-schoolers who are stuttering called the Lidcombe Program, details of which can be found on the “Programs and Interventions for Stuttering” page of this website. Research suggests that intervention for stuttering is quicker and easier in the pre-school years compared to later in life and that it should start soon after onset, as it is not possible to predict which children will recover naturally. Speech pathologists who manage stuttering in Australia in the public and private sector can be found on the website of the professional association, Speech Pathology Australia: https://www.speechpathologyaustralia.org.au. More details for locating speech pathologists in Australia can be found on the Resources page of this website