May 082013

What is stuttering and what causes it?

I’ve been asked this question many times but much more frequently since the Academy award movie “The King’s Speech” brought the problem of stuttering to the public’s attention.  Most of us have seen people who can’t get their words out, who hesitate or seem to get stuck speaking, who “stammer.”  What separates this type of speech from the “um’s and ah’s, hesitations and repetitions that most people experience to some degree?

By definition, stuttering is a speech pattern of repeating or prolonging the first sounds or syllables of a word.  Eye blinking, facial grimacing and other noticeable changes sometimes accompany the stuttering block.  The person who stutters frequently appears to be struggling to speak and the listener oftens feels uncomfortable watching.

What’s happening when someone stutters?  Fundamentally, the stuttering block is a miscoordination between breathing and speaking that results in a tightening of muscles in the throat.  The speaker struggles to break out of this spasm and the result is the speech pattern we hear as a stutter.

Is this psychological?  If I were to ask people in the street, I would receive a resounding “yes.”  But in fact, stuttering is a neurological problem that causes the miscordination I’ve described, not a psychological one.  “The King’s Speech” reinforced the theory of childhood pressures and trauma as the cause of stuttering.  As drama, the idea worked very well, but it’s not factual.  For sure,  psychological conditioning occurs when someone experiences stuttering blocks,  setting up a pattern of behavior.  Even more, when the stutterer feels uncomfortable or anxious in a speaking situation, the problem can become worse.  But it doesn’t start in the stutterer’s mind.

Are “um’s, ah’s” that I’ve recently written about in this blog part of a stuttering pattern?  Rarely so, although some stutterers use fillers to bridge the gap when they block on a word.  In both cases, the speaker gives an impression of rough, disjointed speech, not smooth speaking.

Can stuttering be treated?  Both children and adults can be treated for stuttering or dysfluency but it usually takes effort on the stutterer’s part to use the techniques learned, except for young children who can more easily modify their speaking without becoming aware of the extent of their problem.

Stuttering affects 1% of the adult population and occurs in all countries, among speakers of every language.   Stuttering can shape someone’s behavior and affect his or her life in profound ways.  But it is treatable.


Check back next week for more thoughts on communications and speech.


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