Speaking is something most of us learn to do as infants. But for someone with a stutter, it can be a nightmare.
Stuttering is a condition that causes someone to involuntarily repeat sounds while talking. It affects more than 70 million people worldwide, or roughly one per cent of the population, according to the Stuttering Foundation of America.
Young Post chatted to Thomas Law, a speech therapist at Chinese University, about stuttering and the types of treatment available. We also spoke to Professor William Hayward, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hong Kong, about his experience with stuttering as a child.
“Patients tend to feel a certain word they are trying to say is blocked, or they repeat just part of the word,” explains Law. “Stuttering also usually comes with other mannerisms – patients blink repeatedly, twitch their lips, jaws or nose, or try to rephrase the sentence.
“To sum it up in one sentence, it’s a condition in which someone knows what they want to say but can’t say it fluently.”
According to Law, there are three types of stuttering: developmental, which usually occurs in early childhood; neurogenic, which mostly affects adults who have suffered brain damage; and psychogenic, the rarest of the three, which can be caused by traumatic events.
Developmental stuttering is the most common type. “It’s a physiological problem that appears between the ages of two and four,” says Law.
Hayward had what he describes as a “moderately bad stutter” as a child. “I couldn’t get out a lot of things I wanted to say, and would get caught on certain consonants, such as ‘k’ or ‘t’,” he says. “I also found myself repeating the same syllable.”
But where exactly is the line between having a stammer and simply being in the early stages of learning to speak? And don’t we all stammer a bit when we’re nervous or have to speak in public?
“People tend to say ‘oh, I stutter whenever I get nervous’, but that is not considered a clinical condition because everyone has it when they’re nervous or trying to put sentences together – this is what we call normal disfluency,” says Law. “In these cases, emotions might be a trigger, but people who have a clinical condition stutter regardless of their emotional state or other factors.”
Law says 70-80 per cent of infants who have a developmental stutter overcome it without treatment. This is called spontaneous recovery: the condition just disappears on its own.
“I had a stutter through high school, but it became more and more reduced. Most people who know me now wouldn’t know I’ve had a stutter,” says Hayward.
There are also “loopholes” and ways to work around a stutter. Hayward says he never stuttered while debating or giving a speech in public.
Award-winning Australian singer-songwriter Megan Washington revealed her own “secret” to curing her stutter at a Tedx event in Sydney five years ago.
“Somehow, through some miraculous function of the human brain, it’s impossible to stutter when you sing,” she said in her speech, which has almost two million views on the TED official website.
“Actions that induce fluency, such as singing and syllable-timed speech, in which patients talk to a particular beat, can dramatically reduce stuttering,” says Law.
However, for children whose stuttering doesn’t improve with age, or teens and adults who suffer from psychogenic or neurogenic stuttering, there are two main types of treatment available.
“For children, the most effective method would be the Lidcombe Program, in which parents encourage fluency through positive feedback,” he says.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a cure for adults, but they can use fluency-inducing techniques to cover up their stutter, or seek help from a therapist to lessen the impact of traumatic events.”
Having worked as a speech therapist in both Hong Kong and Australia for more than a decade, Law is currently doing research to find out if syllable-timed speech can reduce stuttering in Cantonese speakers.
“We are trying to figure out the triggers of stuttering in Cantonese, and so far we’ve learned that the syllable-timed speech technique is much more effective for English speakers than Cantonese speakers,” he says.
“A possible explanation would be that Cantonese itself already is a choppy language. Native speakers can still benefit from this technique, but the improvement isn’t always as marked.”