Stuttering is a speech disorder that stops someone from speaking fluently. Many children who stutter stop by themselves, but in some people it is a lifelong condition. Different treatments and programs can help people who stutter to improve their speech. These treatments work most effectively if started during the pre-school years.
What is stuttering?
Stuttering is a speech disorder that affects the flow of speech. You know what you want to say, but you can’t get the words out in the right way at the time you 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 commence later. Stuttering can start overnight, or it can build up over time.
Up to 1 in 12 three-year-olds stutter, but about three quarters of them will recover without any treatment – although it might take a few years. If you still stutter as an adolescent or adult, it is very unlikely you will recover naturally.
Stuttering can lead to anxiety, teasing and embarrassment. Adults who stutter may not always speak up and may have extra challenges during their education or employment.
Signs and symptoms of stuttering
When you stutter, your speech is interrupted. You might repeat sounds (c-c-can), syllables (da-da-daddy), words (and-and-and) or phrases (I want-I want-I want). You might repeat them once or over and over again. Other people stretch out the sounds in words (caaaaan I go) or make no sound at all (this is called a ‘block’ – when it looks like you 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.
Causes of stuttering
Stuttering occurs because there is a problem with the brain processes that make you speak, 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 anxiety and stress can make it worse.
Diagnosis of stuttering
A speech pathologist is trained to assess and treat stuttering. In young children, they can work out whether it’s better to monitor the situation or to start treatment. It will depend on how long the child has been stuttering and whether it’s affecting their communication or their relationships.
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.
Treatment for stuttering
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. It is a type of therapy you provide at home that involves giving positive feedback when your 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. It can be taught one-to-one by a speech pathologist or in a group session. It is often taught intensively over 1 week, with regular follow ups with a speech pathologist.
Other programs that are sometimes used are 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.
Where to get more information
The Australian Speak Easy Association is the peak body for people who stutter.
You can find a speech pathologist on the Speech Pathology Australia website, or you could talk to your GP.
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Last reviewed: November 2018