What is stuttering?

Stuttering is a speech disorder characterized by repetition of sounds, syllables, or words; prolongation of sounds; and interruptions in speech known as blocks. An individual who stutters knows what he or she would like to say but has trouble producing a normal flow of speech. These speech disruptions may be accompanied by struggle behaviors, such as rapid eye blinks or tremors of the lips. Stuttering can make it difficult to communicate with other people, which often affects a person’s quality of life and interpersonal relationships. Stuttering can also negatively influence job performance and opportunities, and treatment can come at a high financial cost. Stuttering is sometimes referred to as stammering and by a broader term, disfluent speech.

How common is stuttering?

Roughly 3 million Americans stutter. Stuttering affects people of all ages. It occurs most often in children between the ages of 2 and 6 as they are developing their language skills and is often outgrown. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of all children will stutter for some period in their life, lasting from a few weeks to several years. Boys are 2 to 3 times as likely to stutter as girls and as they get older this gender difference increases; the number of boys who continue to stutter is three to four times larger than the number of girls. Approximately 75 percent of children recover from stuttering. For the remaining 25 percent who continue to stutter, stuttering can persist as a lifelong communication disorder.

What are the causes of stuttering?

Stuttering starts early in most and can be seen in early childhood from ages 2-6 but many children go through a period of disfluency that does not last more than a few months as they develop speech.  Stuttering lasting longer than a few months usually requires treatment.

There is a strong genetic component associated with stuttering as individuals that stutterer often times come from families that have cases of stuttering. It is important to note that although in children it is often difficult to determine if stuttering will be prolonged until after the fact, stuttering tends to affect boys more than girls and affects those individuals that have family members that also stutter.

Signs and symptoms of stuttering

Stuttering signs and symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty starting a word, phrase or sentence
  • Prolonging a word or sounds within a word
  • Repetition of a sound, syllable or word
  • Brief silence for certain syllables or words, or pauses within a word (broken word)
  • Addition of extra words such as “um” if difficulty moving to the next word is anticipated
  • Avoidance or substitution of difficult words
  • Excess tension, tightness, or movement of the face or upper body to produce a word
  • Anxiety about talking
  • Limited ability to effectively communicate

Stuttering may be accompanied by:

  • Rapid eye blinks
  • Tremors of the lips or jaw
  • Facial tics
  • Head jerks
  • Clenching fists

Stuttering may be worse when the person is excited, tired or under stress, or when feeling self-conscious, hurried or pressured. Situations such as speaking in front of a group or talking on the phone can be particularly difficult for people who stutter. Most people who stutter can speak without stuttering when they talk to themselves and when they sing or speak in unison with someone else.

How is stuttering diagnosed?

Stuttering is usually diagnosed by a speech-language pathologist. The speech-language pathologist will consider:

  • the individual’s case history
  • an analysis of the child’s stuttering behaviors
  • an evaluation of the child’s speech and language abilities
  • the impact of stuttering on his or her life

When evaluating a young child for stuttering, a speech-language pathologist will try to determine if the child is likely to continue his or her stuttering behavior or outgrow it. To determine this difference, the speech-language pathologist will consider such factors as the family’s history of stuttering, whether the child’s stuttering has lasted 6 months or longer, and whether the child exhibits other speech or language problems.

Treatment for stuttering

After an evaluation by a speech-language pathologies, a decision about the best treatment can be made. There are several approaches to treat stuttering, in both children and adults, so an individualized plan can be created to best help the individual. Note that treatment may not eliminate all stuttering but will provide skills to:

  • improve speech fluency
  • improve effective communication
  • improve the ability to interact and participate in social settings

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