Stutterers: shamed and misunderstood

Speech problems are common and they can be a source of misery. But help is at hand.

Kids are cruel. A child who doesn’t fit in – for the most obscure reasons - may be subjected to relentless taunts and jibes. A slight stutter in childhood may become far more serious one as the child feels increasingly self-conscious. The problem often continues into adulthood.

Many people who stutter find that it’s an impediment to their careers. A study in the US in the 1990s found that people who stuttered were regarded as "nervous, shy, quiet, self-conscious, withdrawn, tense, anxious, fearful, reticent, and guarded," or even "hesitant, indecisive and stupid".

The same study found that people who stuttered tended to describe themselves in these stereotypical terms and to conform to them.

The study concluded: "Despite two decades of publicity about stuttering’s possible neurological and hereditary factors, the popular idea that stuttering is caused by 'nervousness' continues to persist. Studies indicate that this is due to people's tendency to equate stuttering with their own moments of disfluency - which may have been prompted by nervousness, fear, uncertainty, or emotional conflict.

"They assume that the stutterer is experiencing similar feelings - only more so. Consequently, they may view stutterers as nervous, slow, ineffective, indecisive, or mentally unstable."

So how should you interact with someone who stutters? Cape Town speech therapist Liesel van Niekerk says it’s vital that you don’t try to prompt or interrupt the person while they’re talking.

Rhythmic speech
"Never repeat what they say or ask them to take a deep breath. Look them in the eyes, look interested, don’t be embarrassed on their behalf. Never ask them to repeat what they said or ask them to speak slowly."

Van Niekerk adds that speech therapy usually takes the form of rhythmic speech exercises which help develop flowing, rather than faltering speech.

William D Parry, chairman of the US National Stuttering Association writes: "I personally have had success in explaining stuttering to people by telling them that it is not caused by nervousness, but that it might involve, among other things, 'a neurological confusion between two basically normal bodily functions - speech and the Valsalva mechanism.'

"I explain that when I feel that speaking may be difficult, I tend to activate the Valsalva mechanism - which is a bodily mechanism that everybody normally uses to help them to exert effort or to force things out of the body, but which causes a blockage of speech.

"I might then have them perform a simple exercise which activates the Valsalva mechanism, causing them to personally experience physical blockage in the mouth or larynx - similar to what may happen during a stuttering block.

A lesson from history
And lastly, take heart in history: First, Demosthenes who had a terrible stammer as a child. He was determined to overcome it and tackled the task with vigour.

He strengthened his voice by standing at the seashore and speaking over the sound of the waves. Still, he was jeered when he first spoke in public. An orphan at age seven, his inheritance was squandered by his guardians. When he came of age he was able to boldly plead his case and won damages. And secondly, anyone who saw the film The King's Speech will know how difficult it can be to live with a stammer, and yet the correct therapy helped King George VI communicate clearly to most of the world on the eve of war.

(William Smook, Health24, updated February 2008)

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