For a child or family experiencing childhood disfluency, also known as stuttering, the frustration of communication can be compounded by the frustration of trying to sort out myth from truth in common perceptions about stuttering. Stuttering is incredibly common, especially in very young children: according to reviews of research by the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, approximately 5% of people will experience stuttering at some point in their lives, and as many as 8 to 11% of children under age 4 will experience stuttering. Despite this high prevalence, unfair negative social perceptions may surround those who stutter, and a great deal of misinformation is present. Here we will address four common misconceptions about stuttering.
MYTH #1: Stuttering is caused by emotional problems or a psychological disorder.
While the exact etiology of disfluency is still being studied, research has demonstrated that stuttering is not the result of a psychological or emotional disease. Though stuttering can certainly have social and emotional ramifications and effects on an individual, stuttering itself is not the sign of deeper psychological disturbance. Likely, a combination of genetic and developmental factors can cause an individual to stutter. Childhood stuttering most commonly appears between the ages of 2 and 5. Especially in the earlier part of this range, many children experience a language “burst” in which their vocabulary increases dramatically and they begin putting together longer and more complex sentences. For some children, especially those who are genetically predisposed to stuttering, this rapid growth may coincide with the onset of disfluency. Other children may begin to stutter surrounding a time of transition in their environments, and for still others there is no identifiable cause of onset.
MYTH #2: A preschool-aged child who stutters will stutter as an adult.
Most individuals who experience disfluency as young children do not, in fact, carry stuttering into adulthood. According to The Stuttering Foundation, approximately 75% of those who begin to experience disfluency as young children will have recovered by the end of the childhood years. In some cases, stuttering resolves on its own, without intervention. This is especially true when there is no family history of stuttering, when the child’s speech and language are otherwise typically developing, and when stuttering first begins at a younger age. Stuttering is also less likely to persist in girls than in boys. For individuals for whom stuttering persists and does not resolve spontaneously, speech/language therapy can be very effective in reducing and/or eliminating disfluency. Certainly some individuals will continue to stutter into adulthood, but this should not be assumed as a given when the child is young.
MYTH #3: No intervention is really needed because stuttering will go away on its own.
This is sometimes, but not always, true. Parents can be reassured that a mild to moderate stutter in a toddler or preschool-aged child often resolves spontaneously. Generally parents are advised to “watch and wait” if the child is young, if the stutter is mild, if the child is not becoming frustrated with communicating, and if no other risk factors are present. However, professional involvement should be sought out if the stuttering has persisted longer than 6-12 months, if the stuttering is increasing in intensity or frequency, or if the child is demonstrating tension or frustration around speaking. This may manifest itself as physical tensing of facial or other muscles during speech, or as emotional negativity and frustration surrounding communication. In these cases, a speech language pathologist should be contacted to assess the child and help the family form a plan to address the disfluency if necessary.
MYTH #4: Stuttering is caused by the family or environment.
When families determine that professional intervention is necessary, they are sometimes dismayed to discover that at the toddler and preschool age, stuttering therapy generally focuses on the family and environment. This does NOT mean, however, that parents have caused their child to stutter. Rather, the focus is placed on family training and intervention at this early stage in a child’s life because making conscious alterations and adaptations in the child’s most common environment can be a highly effective way of alleviating the stutter. If stuttering persists after the preschool years, more direct intervention with the child is then usually introduced. In our next article, we will discuss some initial steps that families can take to help young children who are experiencing disfluency.
For more information on stuttering, the following websites may be helpful:
- National Stuttering Association: http://www.westutter.org/
- The Stuttering Foundation: http://www.stutteringhelp.org/
Written by: Anna Fredman, M.S., CCC-SLP
Speech Language Pathologist