When you were at school, do you remember having a classmate who stuttered? The child was probably a boy, because stuttering affects boys more often than girls. When that child spoke, you heard them repeating words like “and, and, and”, stretching out sounds like “Mmmmummy”, and sometimes there may have been silences, when nothing came out
at all. The child may have been talkative, persisting in spite of his difficulty, or quiet, painfully embarrassed by it. 

There’s every chance you do recall such a child, because stuttering is a relatively common speech difficulty. It affects up to 11% of children in Australia, though many will not take stuttering into their adult years.  

Some children will stop stuttering naturally, and others will do so after attending a speech pathologist. About 1% will continue to stutter into their adolescent and adult years. Importantly, it is not possible to predict which child will stop stuttering (with or without treatment) and which will go on to stutter into adulthood. The cause of stuttering is unknown, but it is a physical rather than a psychological problem, and it runs in families, which suggests there is a genetic basis to it.  

A struggle for children…

While in the media and film stuttering is often depicted as amusing, it is anything but funny to those affected by it. At minimum, stuttering reduces how much a child can say, and the speed at which they can say it. Often friends and family will finish off the sentences for the child who stutters. For many who stutter, this makes talking frustrating. However, for a child who stutters, there is also consequence because stuttering attracts reactions from others. Sadly, those reactions are almost always negative. Children as young as three years react to classmates who stutter. Their reactions may be copying, laughing, or excluding. While many of these reactions may not be observed by teachers, they are acutely noticed by the child who stutters and may impact their psychological well-being long into the future. 

But help is at hand…

Clearly, prevention is the best medicine, and therefore speech therapy aims to prevent stuttering from continuing, thereby reducing its impact. The good news is that Australia is a world leader in the treatment of early stuttering. Our researchers have developed treatments for preschool children that have been tested and shown to be effective in helping to reduce, and in many cases, remove stuttering altogether. The most well known and best researched of these treatments is called The Lidcombe Program. The Lidcombe Program is not only widely used in Australia, it is also used in many countries internationally. Children typically enjoy going to their speech pathologists because therapy is play based, and speech pathologists are highly skilled at engaging children in enjoyable activities. The speech pathologist teaches the child’s parents how to do the therapy, so that therapy can be given in a very natural, unobtrusive way. 

If your child stutters…

When a child begins to stutter, it can be very distressing for parents because it usually appears out of the blue. Parents may wonder what changes have occurred in the child, or their environment, that may have prompted the stuttering to begin. Parents can also be confused because stuttering can come and go. The best action to take is to see a speech pathologist who has experience with children who stutter. That speech pathologist can assess the child’s speech and make recommendations about if and when therapy should commence. Sometimes therapy may be recommended soon after a child begins to stutter, and at other times it may be suggested that the child’s speech be monitored for a short while. In either case, parents often feel very reassured and empowered after meeting with a speech pathologist, because they are provided with clear information about stuttering and the therapies that are available. Maternal and Child Health Nurses, General Practitioners and Speech Pathology Australia can all put parents in touch with speech pathologists nearby. 

How to help at home…

1. Do let your child finish their sentences

2. Do reassure if your child appears distressed

3. Do allow your child extra time to speak

4. Do be alert to any negative reactions (words or actions) of others 

5. Do encourage participation in everyday activities 

6. Do seek the advice of a speech pathologist

By Dr Brenda Carey, speech pathologist at Brenda Carey Stuttering Treatment Centre, Malvern East. www.mystutteringspecialist.com