Child hiding in couch cushions

Speech Pathologists Say Stuttering Is Not A Sign Of Anxiety

When her son Johnnie, eight, started to stutter, Sally Wohlers, Victorian mother of two, felt very emotional.

“I was incredibly worried about him getting a hard time at school,” she said.

Johnnie also felt concerned and confused.

“It was around the first year of school when I started stuttering. I was a bit scared because I didn’t know what they (the stutters) were. I was really nervous about talking because I thought I was going to get picked on by the kids at school.”

Stuttering is a speech disorder that can make it difficult to say sounds, words or sentences fluently, without getting ‘stuck’.

It can affect up to 12 percent of children, or one in eight, by the time they are four years old. Many people are aware that stuttering can involve repetitions of sounds, syllables or words. However, it can include other behaviours such as stretching out sounds, or being unable to get a sound out without ‘pushing’ it out. Stuttering can also be accompanied by grimacing, or other signs of tension as the child tries to get the words out.

“Johnnie’s stutter started off with repetitions, then quite quickly moved on to a clicking sound with his tongue. Then blocks would come. This was a difficult one for Johnnie as his mouth would open and the words just wouldn’t come out. His eyes would also roll & twitch when he was trying to force a word out,” said Sally.

While the cause of stuttering is unknown, it is likely there is a genetic basis to the disorder and it often runs in families. This means that stuttering is a disorder that the child is born with. What can be confusing is that stuttering often does not appear when a child first starts to talk, but rather when a child begins to combine words together. Stuttering can start suddenly or gradually, and can be confronting for parents when their child who was previously fluent begins to show difficulty speaking.

Children who start to stutter do not differ from children who do not in their intelligence, language skills, social skills, or anxiety levels. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that children who start to stutter may have stronger skills in these areas.

Many children go on to grow out of stuttering on their own. However, it is not possible to predict which child will stop stuttering without therapy. Even children who will eventually grow out of stuttering may still stutter for one to two years.

While the experience of stuttering is different for every child, we do know that for some children it can lead them to develop a negative attitude to talking.

It can also mean that they experience teasing or bullying. This can exacerbate stuttering and can lead to social anxiety symptoms in later life. For this reason, if your child starts to stutter, it is advised that you consult a speech pathologist as soon as possible.

The treatment most commonly used in Australia is the effective Lidcombe Program. Developed by researchers at the Australian Stuttering Research Centre, the Lidcombe Program teaches parents to treat their child’s stuttering using a behavioural therapy approach.

Many children respond positively to this program and stuttering can be eliminated or reduced to very low levels.

Best of all, it is enjoyable for the child who stutters. If the child does not respond to the Lidcombe Program, other treatments are available. I used this program to treat Johnnie.

When asked about Johnnie’s speech now, Sally said, “Incredible! I just cannot believe how far his speech has come. We have gone from Johnnie (and me) crying and him asking if I could take him to the doctor to get some medicine to make it go away, to him now saying that he is so happy. There is no way Johnnie’s speech would be where it is today without it.”

Johnnie is now speaking without stuttering and will be doing a solo at his upcoming school concert. When asked how he feels about his talking now, he put it simply: “I feel much better that I can control it, and I just feel happy.”

To find out more, visit the Australian Stuttering Research Centre or speak with a speech pathologist who works with children who stutter.

Dr. Kylie Smith and Dr. Brenda Carey are speech pathologists at the Stuttering Treatment Centre in East Malvern, Melbourne. They offer therapy to clients of all ages, both in-clinic and via Skype around Australia and overseas.