Children who stutter should get help as early as possible
One in ten pre-school children has a stutter. The sooner they get help, the more likely they are to overcome it.
It is commonly believed that stuttering does not seriously affect young children. A new doctoral study shows that this is not the case.
Linn Stokke Guttormsen has studied 38 pre-school children who have a stutter. She found that contrary to what she previously though, children are very sensitive to how others react when they speak.
"Children who stutter struggle more with negative thoughts about the way they talk than other children," she says.
Many children who stutter are bullied
But not all children are the same. Some stutter for one or two years without being aware of it or experiencing negative reactions. But for other children, the negative experiences start immediately, says Guttormsen.
Stuttering can have an ongoing and negative impact on a child’s self-esteem, causing them to withdraw more from social situations. Contributing factors often include bullying, or when other children and adults do not have the patience to listen to what the child has to say.
Studies of adults who stutter show that their negative experiences result in a poorer quality of life and social isolation.
Read More: She stutters, but hardly anyone knows it
Meta-analysis of research
Most children start to stutter when they are between two and four years old, but many outgrow it before they start school.
Parents used to be advised to wait and see how it develops before starting treatment.
Guttormsen will soon be defending the first doctoral dissertation on stuttering in Norway, and she has done a meta-analysis of all the available research on studies of the communication attitudes and thinking of children who stutter.
She determined that waiting to initiate treatment is not a good strategy.
"There’s no reason children should have to experience frustration when treatment could help them," she says.
An important part of her doctorate has been to develop a technique to measure how children are affected by a stutter.
Why do some people stutter?
Researchers do not know why some people outgrow stuttering and others do not.
They also do not know for sure why some develop a stutter in the first place, although numerous studies have pointed to several reasons. But they do know that stuttering can run in families.
Neuroscience shows that the brain function and structure of people who stutter differs from people who do not have a stutter. But since these studies have only considered adults, it is hard to tell if these neurological differences are a consequence of stuttering or the cause of it.
Hilda Sønsterud has been a speech therapist for 20 years. She works for Statped, a Norwegian service for special needs education, and is currently conducting a study on the treatment of adults who stutter at the University of Oslo.
"We know that many different treatments can work to alleviate stuttering, but we still don’t really know what works best for each person. We also don’t know when children are the most receptive to treatment,” she says.
Nevertheless, Sønsterud recommends seeking help for stuttering as soon as possible.
Achieving more control
Sønsterud is investigating different treatments and trying to determine what is most useful for each individual.
“It’s rare for adults who stutter to outgrow stuttering. But many of them can learn to speak with much less tension and energy. A lot of adults get better at managing their stuttering in more situations. And many achieve more control and security,” she says.
In the preliminary analyses, Sønsterud is finding that trying to avoid situations affects the quality of life of people who stutter. Should I take that phone call or not answer it? Should I go to the job interview or not?
"A lot of people who stutter pay too much attention to it. The fear of stuttering can lurk in the background as a major and continuous threat. It drains people’s energy,” she says.
Dare to try different treatments
There are lots of ways to find a treatment that is a good fit," says Sønsterud.
"There are so many different people and personalities. It’s an art to figure out the exact treatment that best suits the individual. If you’re an introvert, it doesn’t work to go talk to strangers out on the street,” she says.
But the correct speech therapy combined with exposure therapy is the treatment that has proven to be the most effective, according to Sønsterud.
She believes it is important not to become too attached to a single treatment plan.
“Research shows that most approaches work, but we just have to figure out what's helpful for a given individual. As speech-language pathologists, we have to dare to try out different things instead of forcing everyone into the same treatment programme,” Sønsterud says.
The Department of Special Needs Education at the University of Oslo is now launching a new project aimed at finding the most effective way to treat pre-school children who stutter.
Read more in the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no