Finding your voice

Finding your voice

Stuttering is incurable but therapy can improve the condition

In the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech, King George VI struggles to overcome his stutter. The film, a true story, looks at the pressure he faced during childhood: a nanny who pinched him until he cried so his parents would not want to see him; a strict father who picked on his left-handedness and stammering; and his brother who teased him.

In reality, stuttering, a speech disorder, is believed to be genetic. But pressure plays a big role.

"There is no proof that pressure is the cause of stuttering. But pressure and psychological factors play an important role in the recovery process," says Winnie Cheung Ka-yan, a speech therapist at the Caritas Rehabilitation Service.

Cheung says stutterers make up 1 per cent of the global population, but there are no statistics for Hong Kong. There are more male stutterers than female. Parents who stutter are also likely to have children with the same problem.

"Usually there are signs as early as three years old, such as constant repetition of syllables or words. Sometimes a blockage - the stopping of speech - is accompanied by unusual body movement," Cheung says. "Early intervention is crucial to recovery."

Stuttering is incurable among adults.

There are different approaches to therapy. For children, visual aids such as pictures and musical notes are used to help develop rhythm and fluency in speech. For teenagers, online software is used to help them record and practise speaking. But the recovery process for teenagers is much more complicated. "Teenagers are very conscious of their stuttering," Cheung says. "They are often teased. In serious cases, it could lead them to withdraw and develop a social phobia."

She says some students do not want to greet her in front of others when she goes to their school. "When they enter the classroom before the therapy session, they will close the curtains because they don't want to be seen having a session with me."

To help them overcome the psychological barrier, a lot of encouragement is needed. "Do not comment on their stuttering, correct or rephrase their speech. Comments will only make them more nervous. Instead, praise them when they are doing a good job. Focus on their ideas rather than how well they say them."

Cheung also says the attitudes of parents are important. "Parents who set high standards can cause pressure; they will show disappointment or frustration without even being aware of it."

Although stuttering is not curable, motivation can help sufferers recover up to 80 per cent, says Raymond Lee Kam-shing. Lee runs New Page with a team of professionals. They help people with learning and developmental problems. "Adults are especially sensitive to others' comments. Grown-up stutterers have low self-esteem and are very quiet. It's important we accept and treat them as normal," he says.

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