Brain imaging scans are teaching us more about why people stutter, and the findings may surprise you.
Maura Quinn-Padron, a Marshfield Clinic speech pathologist, said in people who stutter, the right hemisphere of the brain is more active when speaking than for people who don’t stutter. This difference in activity and perhaps interference by the right hemisphere on the left is thought to contribute to dysfluent speech.
Stuttering is physiological
The basis of stuttering is too much tension in the speech mechanism, Quinn-Padron said. She emphasized that stuttering is a physiological issue.
“Stuttering is not a mental disorder. In the past, that’s what it was thought to be – that it was some kind of psychological problem. It’s not,” Quinn-Padron said. “The occurrence of psychological problems in people who stutter is no different than in other people.”
Family history is a strong determinant of stuttering.
Your chances of stuttering are 60 percent higher if you have a close family member who stuttered,” Quinn-Padron said.
Though stuttering is physiologically based, a traumatic event, like a death in the family, a divorce or a move, also can contribute to increased stuttering in children.
It generally starts early
Stuttering usually begins between the ages of 2 and 5, when children are starting to develop and master speech and language.
Quinn-Padron said 3 to 5 percent of children struggle with speech in their early language development, but 75 percent of those children grow out of this stage without any intervention or speech therapy needed. One percent of the total population will deal with stuttering beyond this initial period that most grow out of. Though stuttering initially occurs in young boys and girls equally, boys tend to continue to stutter at higher rates than girls.
“Early identification of stuttering is really critical,” Quinn-Padron said.
The general rule of thumb is, if parents notice a period of stuttering or language difficulty in their child’s speech lasting longer than six months, the child should be seen by a speech pathologist. Quinn-Padron said she would be more proactive and advises getting help for a child who is struggling with speech for even two months.
Be supportive, patient and understanding
How parents respond to their child’s stuttering is critical in determining how effectively the child will work through his or her challenges.
Don’t respond negatively to your child if he or she is struggling or stuttering,” Quinn-Padron said. “Respond to the content of your child’s message, not how he or she is delivering that message.”
Often, parents who are trying to help will tell their children to speak slower, but a 2- or 3-year-old child may not understand this direction. In fact, telling a young child to speak more slowly may only alert them that he or she is doing something wrong. This may actually make the stuttering worse.
Children learn virtually everything by modeling after others. If parents are easy and relaxed in their speech, that will be a powerful example for children to follow.
Children who stutter tend to struggle with some common issues. The beginning of sentences or phrases is a frequent trouble spot, especially for young children. Putting together longer phrases or thoughts also may present challenges.
Sometimes parents feel that their child struggles with certain letters or words. But it is more likely that the language or intent of their message is what is actually posing difficulty. For example, a parent may say, “Johnny always gets stuck on the letter or word ‘I’.”
“When you start an utterance with the word ‘I,’ you’re putting yourself out there and telling another person what you want, think or feel,” Quinn-Padron said. “That can create tension or stress in the speech mechanism of a young child who is working with a developing or challenged system.”
Like others who specialize in stuttering, Quinn-Padron thinks of stuttering in young children as an issue of demand vs. capacity. For children who stutter, the demand on their speech system is greater than their capacity to handle that demand.
“It might be that the child is very sophisticated in their thinking, but their language doesn’t support it,” Quinn-Padron said. “Or their language is relatively high level compared to their age, but they still have the speech mechanism of an average child for their age.”
If you have concerns about your child’s speech, contact his or her primary care provider who can refer your child to a speech pathologist if necessary.