Helping a child who stutters

While we know a little bit about stuttering, there is a lot left to be learned.

The American Institute for Stuttering in New York reports that stuttering occurs in five to eight percent of children, usually between the ages of 2 and 6. They note that 70 to 80 percent of these kids will naturally outgrow their stuttering, while early intervention can help children outgrow it faster or recover if it would not happen naturally. The organization also states that stuttering affects one percent of the population across all languages and cultures, which equates to nearly four million people in the U.S. and 60 million people internationally. There are three times more males affected than females, and most fascinatingly, most individuals can sing without stuttering.

The most common questions parents wonder is the cause for their child’s stuttering.

“Research tells us now that stuttering is a combination of genetics and environment, and that all children who stutter are born with a predisposition to stutter,” said Rozie Matthews, a speech and language pathologist in Brooklyn.

The challenge is that there is no cure, even though there are great ways to manage stuttering with proper therapy.

“Typically, children develop stuttering as early as age 2, but there are things we can do to make their speaking environment more speaker-friendly,” said Matthews.

Identifying stuttering is easy.

“Typically, parents see something different or wrong about the child’s speech and a therapist evaluates whether it is a normal dysfluency, which all children have when they are developing, or if it is in fact real stuttering,” said Matthews, adding a speech therapist can treat stuttering legally and ethically.

Sometimes, a teacher will notice that a child is stuttering in school or find that the child does not raise his hand.

“Very often kids will switch their words or there is something they want to say, but cannot at the moment, so they switch to something else,” said Matthews.

The goal of therapy is to get the child to say what he wants when he wants and be a good communicator even if he is unable to stop stuttering. Once the child has gone through therapy, the prognosis is decent.

There is a large recovery rate, said Matthews. If you take advantage of the resources in our community, your child can definitely be helped.

“It is our judgment call whether or not to start therapy with a child who we see is stuttering,” she said.

Some kids achieve better results than others, and the younger a child starts therapy, the better the chance he can eliminate it altogether.

“We have a good chance of eliminating stuttering in a preschooler, but with school-aged kids it is more likely to teach them to manage the disorder,” said Matthews.

There are strategies parents or siblings can use at home to help a child who stutters.

“If there are siblings vying for talking time, we try to have the parents discourage interrupting,” said Matthews.

Giving the stutterer the time he deserves can make him feel better about interacting in general.

“Of course, we try to make sure there is no teasing going on in the household or school environment,” said Matthews.

You want to treat the stutterer as you would any other child.

“We teach parents to not necessarily slow down their rate of speech, but to add pause breaks,” said Matthews. When there is a model of slower speech or pausing, it is more likely that the child will respond that way and try to use pause breaks as well.

By educating others on tips and tricks when conversing with a stutterer, you can make things easier for everybody involved.

“People who are speaking with someone who stutters should know to maintain eye contact because often times the stutterer will lose eye contact for various reasons, which is called an avoidance tactic,” said Matthews. She explains that when this happens, the listener becomes unsure as to what he is supposed to do and does not look at the speaker directly either.

“You should not finish the words you think the stutterer is trying to say, and should give the stuttering person the time he needs to get out what he wants to say,” said Matthews.

Believe it or not, the person does not want help.

“They want to say their own words, even if it takes them time to say it,” she added.

Speaking is beneficial.

“In therapy we try to encourage people to talk because if they try to hide their stuttering, chances are they are going to stutter even more,” said Matthews.

When someone understands that the person stutters, it can instantly take a burden away.

“When somebody explains to them or shows them videos of other kids who stutter and talks about it openly, it becomes more normalized, and even though they are different, they are not as different as they thought they were because they now know there are other people who stutter, and have an understanding of their behaviors,” said Matthews.

Take one step at a time.

“A lot of people claim to have the cure for therapy, but we have to look at the literature and the real research-based therapies,” said Matthews.

Preschoolers who stutter should be taken to a fluency therapist, who will determine if therapy is appropriate.

“Very often times they do not, and they just counsel the parent on changing environmental things, and that is enough,” said Matthews.

Consider the whole picture, such as if other family members stutter, if there are other speech and language issues involved, or how stuttering has progressed over time. All of these factors help determine whether a child should start therapy. Above all, do not be afraid to talk about stuttering with your pediatrician or seek an evaluation from a speech therapist, as the chance of improvement is great.

Jamie Lober, author of Pink Power (www.getpinkpower.com), is dedicated to providing information on women’s and pediatric health topics. She can be reached at jamie@getpinkpower.com.

© 2013 Jamie Lober

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