Stuttering 101

Expert:  Danielle Devore, speech language pathologist at Texas Children’s Hospital.

Speech Therapist Julie Wahrenberger works with five-year-old Jennifer Melgoza. Photo by A. Kramer.

Speech Therapist Julie Wahrenberger works with five-year-old Jennifer Melgoza. Photo by A. Kramer.

Q: What is stuttering?

Stuttering is a communication disorder involving disruptions in the production of speech sounds, also called “disfluencies,” in a person’s speech. If you listen to the speech of those around you, you may notice that no one speaks without disfluencies. For example, many people use repetitive words in their sentences, such as “um” or “uh.” Typically, these disfluencies are not a true stutter. The difference between moments of disfluencies and stuttering is the amount of tension associated with the moment of stuttering. Many children have secondary behaviors and tension when they stutter, such as eye blinks, facial grimacing, changes in pitch or loudness, negative reaction or frustration, reduced speaking, word or situational avoidance. Physical tension or secondary behaviors with disfluencies is a true stutter.

These are the common types of disfluencies found in both normal and disordered speech:

Single word repetition: Repeating a single word in a sentence.

Phrase repetition: Repeating a phrase within a sentence.

Syllable repetition: Repeating a syllable within a word in a sentence.

Blocking: Trying to get a syllable or sound out but getting stuck, making no noise.

Prolongation: Holding the first sound of a word or syllable, with difficulty moving to the next sound.

Q: What causes stuttering?

The cause of stuttering is unknown, but experts agree it is probably caused by a combination of factors such as genetics, language growth and environmental factors. Recent research suggests that most children who stutter have a family member who also stutters or stuttered as a child. Stuttering can also occur during the preschool years as children are learning the rules of language. This rapid growth in language from immature messages like “Mommy juice” into longer sentences like “Mommy, can I have juice please?” may produce stuttering.

It is also believed the language environment can aggravate stuttering in a child who has a tendency to stutter. These factors include parental attitudes and expectations toward communication with the child, the child’s level of speech and language development, stressful life events and anxiety of stuttering.

Q: How many children stutter?

According to the Stuttering Foundation, approximately five percent of all children go through a period of stuttering. It is also normal for a child to go back and forth between moments of fluent speech and stuttering. In general, if a child stutters on more than 10 words out of 100, this may indicate the child has a true stutter.

Q: What are early signs of stuttering?

There are no early signs of stuttering. There are factors that may increase the chances of a child stuttering, such as family history of stuttering, language growth and the environment in which the child is speaking.

Q: When should you seek help for your child?

If a child is over the age of 3 ½ and has stuttered for longer than six months, consider seeking a speech and language evaluation. Between 75 and 80 percent of children who begin to stutter will eventually stop within 12 to 24 months without therapy. Many children who “recover” from stuttering do so within months of the time their stuttering started.

Q: What can parents do to help their child who stutters?

The best way parents can help their child who stutters is try to speak to their child in simple, short sentences, pausing slightly before responding. When a child is talking, try not to interrupt or finish his sentences. It is important that the child feels like he has enough time to talk and that he is being heard. Also, when talking with a child who stutters, try to minimize the noise level and the competition for your attention. It is also important to work closely with the child’s speech and language pathologist. In therapy, the child will learn strategies to reduce stuttering. These strategies need to be reinforced at home and school. Parents also need to inform all who have contact with the child about the importance of using smooth, relaxed speech when talking to the child.

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