Broken Words: Stammering in the 21st Century

written by Nichola Mundy Specialist Speech and Language Therapist, Cert MRCSLT

Words First Ltd

I stared out to the railing of the balcony, a spotlight setting my chest ablaze. My stomach and ribs expanded, and hot air rushed into my throat. The air in my abdomen reversed its flow, and my mouth cupped properly around the syllables of my next line. Then suddenly my brain blinked. My jaw locked. My diaphragm froze. My vocal folds flexed, trying desperately to make sound. I tapped my heel to distract my brain from the glitch

Jeremy Hays, Actor (http://www.say.org/blog/fluentlove/)

 

We all stammer occasionally. Sometimes our brains move too fast for our mouths, or sometimes we’re not really sure what to say. Ums and Ahhs become fillers and allow us time to put our ideas together. But when these natural dysfluencies compound and become uncontrollable (fuelling a vicious cycle of anxiety, tension, and pressure), individuals find themselves literally stuck for words.

 

Stammering (or stuttering) is a communication difficulty where individuals struggle to speak with ease and fluency. The causes of stammering continue to defy research; however, we are gaining more and more insight into possible causing factors, including neurological, biological, psychological and environmental influences.

 

Stammering affects 70 million people worldwide, with children between 3 and 8 years of age accounting for over 80% of this number. Many children will have a period of naturally occurring stammering between the ages of 2 and 4, when the greatest explosion of human language learning occurs (picture a wobbly new born giraffe finding its feet). Though, if this period of dysfluency lasts longer than 6 months, its time to seek out a speech and language therapist’s bag of magic tricks.

 

There are three types of stammers, each with its own appearance:

 

  • Repetitions of sounds, words or phrases are generally the most common (e.g. “I-I-I-I don’t like ve-ve-vegetables”);
  • Prolongations sound like stretched out words (e.g. “Mmmmmum, I hate veeeeeegetables!”);
  • Blocks occur when an individual’s words get completely stuck, their mouths shape ready for the word, but airflow stops and the pressure builds, often exploding into the word once released – like our friend Mr Hays above explained so eloquently (e.g. “——CAN I have ice cream instead?!”).

 

Alongside these outward breaks in speech, individuals can experience additional behaviours such as excessive blinking, body tension and internal dread. Stammering can cause extreme frustration and significant negative emotions when individuals face the pressure of communicating with others.

 

Stammering therapy (and the Speech and Language Therapy profession) has come a long way since the days of King George VI and, for anyone who has watched The King’s Speech, I can assure you that modern therapy methods are now deeply rooted in research (although some of Mr Logue’s ideas are still relevant today). Interventions differ depending on the age of the person, with behavioural modification techniques proving successful for younger children, and speech restructuring and solution-focused therapies often used for teens and adults.

 

With this in mind, there are some important things that you can do when speaking with a person who stammers:

  • Be Patient – you may be tempted to finish the sentence of a person who is stammering. Let them speak for themselves. Wait and listen.
  • Be a good listener – let the person who stammers know (using your words and body language) that you are listening to what they are saying.
  • Remember that its ok to stammer – Avoid giving advice such as ‘just relax’. Maintain natural eye contact, and give them time.
  • If you’re not sure how to respond, ask! – often people who stammer already have strategies that work for them, and may appreciate your respectful interest into how you can help.

 

There isn’t a ‘cure’ for stammering, however the earlier a child accesses therapy, the more likely they will find success in reducing their stammer to unnoticeable levels. For older children and adults, stammering interventions can make a positive difference as individuals learn to break the vicious cycle of negative thoughts and feelings, increasing their confidence and the overall control of their stammer.

 

So the next time you meet a stammerer, have patience and let them speak. Because in a world that can’t stop talking, silence is golden.

References and Useful Links:

 

My Stammering Tap (awesome animated video!), Peter Snelling

https://vimeo.com/239094673

 

The British Stammering Association

www.stammering.org

 

The Stuttering Foundation

https://www.stutteringhelp.org/faq