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Stuttering: A Fluent Article On Speech Disfluency

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Human communication is complex. It includes a variety of speech, gestures and expressions and we are not always smooth while expressing ourselves. We fumble, stutter, lisp, splutter and jabber. These mistakes, called disfluencies, are of various kinds and are more common among young children who are learning to speak. They have difficulty speaking as their speech abilities are not fully developed enough to keep up with what they wish to say. Children repeat or prolong a word, a syllable, or a consonant or vowel sound. They may even pause while speaking when they stumble upon problematic words or sounds. All these speech disfluencies listed above come under the wide umbrella of stuttering or stammering. 

Before we get started, let’s clear the confusion between the two terms that we just used. How is stuttering different from stammering? Absolutely nothing is disparate between the two except the fact that stuttering is an American English word while stammering belongs to the British dictionary. So now that you’ve got your vocabulary right, let’s talk about stuttering at large. What causes stuttering, what are its signs, its treatment and how can we help those who stammer? 

(You see how we used both terms? We’ll be doing that throughout the blog so that our readers from both parts of the world can relate) 

Going With The Flow 

Stammering is a speech fluency disorder which involves frequent and significant issues with the flow of words. People who stutter know exactly what to speak but have issues saying it. This speech disruption, also known as childhood-onset fluency disorder, is pretty common among children who are learning to speak. According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), about 5 to 10 per cent of all children stutter at some point, most often between ages 2 to 6. However, this issue can sometimes persist into adulthood and that’s when it becomes problematic. While most kids outgrow stuttering, some can’t get their speech free-flowing, which can have detrimental effects on their self-esteem and interpersonal relationships. 

Stuttering may instil negative feelings such as tension and embarrassment in some and get in the way of how one talks to others. It can even lead us to avoid certain words or situations. For example, if the word Krishna makes you stutter you will avoid all conversations where you would have to pronounce it or find alternatives to the word that may at times complicate an otherwise simple dialogue. Furthermore, if it’s talking on the phone that makes you stammer, you may avoid phone calls altogether, talk to very few people or for very short durations. 

Stammering can change from day to day. There may be times when you are absolutely fluent while at times you may stammer more than usual. Stress, excitement, anger and other strong emotions have a direct impact on our speech and thus may cause us to stammer more or less. On top of that, situations where we are self-conscious, hurried or pressured, may also make us stammer more. 

In addition to these instances, there are a few stark indicators of people who stammer. We’ve listed them for you to get a clear picture. 

Just A Moment

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, individuals who stutter may get extremely tense or run out of breath when they talk. They may feel that their speech is being blocked in a way that their mouth is in the correct position to say the word but the sound doesn’t come out. To overcome this, they pause mid-sentence or use interjections such as ‘um’, ‘like’, ‘well’, etc. to delay the initiation of the word that is difficult for them to pronounce.
Viz – I want (pause) cookies and milk/ I want um, cookies and milk. 

Other common signs and symptoms associated with stuttering include:

  • Repetition: There are various types of repetition that count as stuttering:
    1. Repeating whole words (viz– I want cookies… cookies and milk)
    2. Repeating parts of words (viz– I w-w-want cookies and milk)
    3. Repeating a phrase (viz– I want… I want cookies and milk )
    4. Repeating a syllable (viz– I want coo..cookies and milk)
  • Prolonged Sounds: Prolonging a word or sounds within a word (viz– I want ccccccokies and milk)
  • Revision: Changing the words of the sentence they feel is difficult to say (viz– I want cccc…. biscuits and milk)

There are a few other indicators observed among people who stutter. The accompanying stress causes one to blink rapidly along with other physical changes like facial tics, lip tremors, and tension in the face and upper body. Excess tension, tightness, or movement of the face or upper body to produce a word may also be experienced by those who stutter.  

So now we understand stammering and its types but what makes us stammer in the first place? Let’s dig in! 

What Makes Us Stutter? 

While there is no clear cause of stuttering, there are a few reasons which can cause this speech disfluency. Family history and genes also impact one’s flow of speech. This means to say that if your family members stutter you are also likely to stutter given it’s a genetic abnormality in the part of the brain that governs language. 

An oddity in speech motor control, such as timing, and sensory and motor coordination, may also be involved in making one stutter while speaking. Furthermore, brain injuries such as one from a stroke can cause neurogenic stuttering whereas severe emotional trauma can lead to psychogenic stuttering. Psychogenic stuttering originates in the part of the brain that governs thinking and reasoning. 

While we cannot always be certain as to which child will continue to stutter, there are a few factors that may place them at a higher risk. These include age and gender. Research indicates that boys are more likely to continue stammering into adolescence or adulthood than girls. Also, those who belong to a family of people who stutter are more likely to continue stuttering. 

This may make you question that if stuttering is common among children, when is it that we should seek professional help? We have the answer to this question. 

Seeking Professional Help 

For most children, the ages 2-6 is when they are learning to speak, and this is the time frame when they are most likely to stutter which gets better as they step into adolescence. However, stuttering that persists may require treatment from a speech-language pathologist (SLP) to improve speech fluency. 

A few signs to look out for are:

  1. Stuttering persists for more than six months. 
  2. Becomes more frequent or continues as the child grows older
  3. Stuttering occurs with muscle tightening or a visible struggle to speak
  4. Stammering is affecting the ability of the child to communicate
  5. The child avoids talking or says it is too hard to talk.

The SLP will assess problems faced by the child when speaking and their frequency. They will also evaluate how they cope with the stutter. They may perform other assessments, such as speech rate and language skills, depending on the individual’s age and history.

The SLP will analyse the data and determine whether or not there is a fluency disorder and its effect on the child’s life. Based on their observations, the SLP may also suggest corrective therapies and other interventions. The treatment will largely depend on factors such as

  • How much the child stutters
  • How the child reacts when stuttering
  • How stuttering impacts your child’s everyday life
  • How others react when they stutter
  • The child’s age

Now you may question “what about the adults who stutter?”. Well, the drill remains the same. You contact the SLP and they’ll take care of it. However, if you are someone who stutters and would like to work on improving yourself, we have a few tricks up our sleeves. 

Tips To Reduce Stammering 

  1. Speak Slowly

Slow down your pace of speaking and take deliberate pauses in between. This can help you reduce the stress associated with speaking and your neurological coordination will also improve. It will also add modulation to your speech and make it more effective. You can read aloud at your own pace in front of the mirror when you’re on alone and then gradually inculcate it as a habit. Let those around you know that you’re trying this and that their patience can really help. Practising in front of a mirror will also make you less self-conscious. 

  1. Record Yourself Speaking

Record yourself while you read aloud. This can help you track your progress. It could also help shed light on words or phrases that trigger you into stuttering and make you notice things that you otherwise wouldn’t. If listening to your own voice is jarring or causes anxiety, start out slowly. While hearing your own progress being made can be encouraging, it may not work for everyone. Discontinue this practice if this works negatively for you. Remember you know yourself the best. 

  1.  Try mindfulness 

Mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows you to be calm and focus on your thoughts or a specific action. This can aid you in relaxation and help relieve anxiety. Furthermore, preliminary research indicates that mindfulness techniques can help with a comprehensive treatment plan for stuttering.

Finally, if you’re someone who doesn’t stammer but your close ones do, we have got some key takeaways, especially for you. 

Talking With Someone Who Stammers

If you’re talking with someone who has a stutter, it’s important that you let them speak at their own pace. Trying to rush their speech will only make it more difficult for them to finish sharing their thoughts.

You shouldn’t try to finish their sentences for them. Be patient and allow them to finish on their own. Not only will this help them work on their stuttering, but it will also have a positive impact on their overall sense of well-being. Besides this, you may be completing their sentences with pure intention but it may intimidate them and they may shy away from speaking again so freely assuming their stutter is annoying to you. This brings us to another point which is to never ask them to speak faster. You must realise and keep in mind that their speech isn’t on par with yours. Give them the confidence to speak and let them know you’re interested to listen what they have to say by maintaining eye contact. 

Another thing you shouldn’t do is ask people who shutter to ‘relax’ or ‘take deep breaths’. It will only make them conscious and be discouraging. Instead, be patient and give them the time they need to express their opinion. Motivate and allow them to speak in a larger group. And it goes without saying, never make fun of stutterers. Remember, humility is not counted in grammar, nor in fluency, but is vividly shown in mannerisms.

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