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Stuttering is a speech disorder that stops someone from speaking fluently. Most children who stutter recover naturally, but it can be a lifelong condition for some people. Different treatments and programs can help people who stutter to improve their speech. These treatments are most effective if started during the pre-school years.

What is stuttering?

Stuttering is a speech disorder that affects the flow of speech. A person who stutters knows what they want to say, but they can’t get the words out in the right way when they want to say them.

About 1 in 100 Australians stutter. The condition can affect children, adolescents and adults. It usually starts in childhood, between the ages of about 2 and 4, although it can also start later. Stuttering can start overnight, or it can build up over time.

Up to 1 in 12 three-year-olds stutter. About three-quarters of them will recover without any treatment although it might take a few years. It is unlikely that a person who stutters as an adolescent or adult will recover naturally.

What are the signs and symptoms of stuttering?

When a person stutters, their speech is interrupted. They might repeat sounds (c-c-can), syllables (da-da-daddy), words (and-and-and) or phrases (I want-I want-I want). They may stretch out the sounds in words (caaaaan I go) or make no sound at all (this is called a ‘block’ – when it looks like they are stuck and trying to speak but no sound is coming out).

You might also grunt, make other small sounds, or use a lot of ‘ums’ and ‘errs’. You might also make facial expressions, blink, or move your body when you’re trying to speak.

What causes stuttering?

Stuttering occurs because there is a problem with the brain processes that control speech, although we still don’t know why this happens. It tends to run in families.

Stuttering has nothing to do with low intelligence, emotional problems, or how parents talk to their children. It doesn’t mean someone has psychological problems – although stuttering can cause anxiety and stress, which in turn can make stuttering worse.

How is stuttering diagnosed?

A speech pathologist is trained to assess and treat stuttering. Although most children recover naturally from stuttering, it’s not possible to work out who will get better on their own and who will need therapy. If a child stutters for some years, it can be harmful, even if natural recovery occurs without therapy. For this reason, it is recommended that all pre-school children who start to stutter receive therapy.

For older children, adolescents and adults, the speech pathologist will probably recommend treatment as soon as possible to reduce the impact of stuttering on daily life.

How is stuttering treated?

The most appropriate treatment will depend on the age of the person who stutters.

Stuttering in children is usually treated using the Lidcombe Program. This program is very effective and often stops children from stuttering altogether. The therapy can be provided at home and involves giving positive feedback when the child says something without stuttering. The child will need to see a speech pathologist every week. The Lidcombe Program is best for children under 6, although it can also be used for older children.

Stuttering in adolescents and adults is usually treated using the Smooth Speech program. This program helps people practise and improve their communication skills. Smooth speech is often taught intensively over 1 week in individual or group sessions, with regular follow-ups with a speech pathologist.

Other programs include the McGuire program and the Ezy-Speech program. It is best to take advice from a speech pathologist about the best treatment for you or your child.

If your child or someone you know stutters, make time to listen to them and let them finish what they are saying. Reassure them and try not to draw attention to their stutter.

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Last reviewed: November 2021

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