Living with stuttering

How many people do you know? Think about the different facets of your life. There are family members, friends, work colleagues, school, community members, or the person who makes your coffee. Do any of these people stutter (or stammer, as it is called in the UK)? Did you know that around 1% of adults stutter? This means you probably know at least one person who stutters.

But perhaps you don’t know who that person is.

Working with adults who stutter, I see how disabling this communication disorder is. Many adults who stutter avoid speaking in situations in which they expect to stutter. For some adults this can mean avoiding talking altogether; for others the educational and occupational choices they make are limited. Indeed research shows that half of all adults who stutter could be diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder.

Rewind to the preschool years when stuttering tends to begin and you see a different picture. The preschoolers who present to my clinic are mostly less bothered by their stuttering; many haven’t yet noticed they do it. Parents are concerned, they’ve come to find out more, and they hope that their child will recover naturally (without treatment).

Listen to this 2 minute section of Richard Fidler’s interview with Dame Margaret Drabble on ABC 702. Margaret Drabble, a distinguished English novelist, captures the nature of stuttering as experienced by someone who stutters.

Margaret-Drabble-Discusses-Stuttering "Margaret-Drabble-Discusses-Stuttering". "Margaret-Drabble-Discusses-Stuttering"

Although Margaret can’t recall much about her own stuttering when she was a preschooler, she recalls it caused difficulties at school. The interviewer relays information about the actor who played Darth Vader in Star Wars, who apparently remained selectively mute for many of his school years owing to his stutter.

Although Margaret recalls bravely persisting with stuttered speech, she explains that she continues to have difficulties with stuttering and that in recent times the “terror” of being unable to say something she knows she needs to say has kept her awake at night.

During the interview, when relaying a recent example of being unable to speak, Margaret again struggles to say the words she anticipates stuttering on. Such anticipation is commonly reported by adults who stutter. Typical of stuttering, Margaret is able to interject with something else: “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this”. The interviewer steps in, saying the phrase, which allows her to follow.

It is possible to forsee how living with this sort of communication issue leads to people withdrawing from communication and social interaction. Even if you are able to anticipate when stuttering is about to occur, as Margaret Drabble’s example illustrates there are times when no alternative word can be substituted.

Margaret says she finds formal situations the most difficult. This can vary; I’ve had clients who stutter more severely in informal situations and I’ve had clients who have noticed no difference between these.

No parent would like for their child to go through life stuttering.

The Lidcombe Program is an evidence-based treatment for preschool-age children which aims to eliminate stuttering; by contrast the most effective adult treatments mask stuttering. However, parents of preschoolers are extremely busy these days, and the Lidcombe Program requires consistent time and effort and commitment from parents.

Research suggests that approximately 10% of preschoolers who stutter might recover without treatment within a year of onset. After this time children are approaching the age at which treatment with the Lidcombe Program may not be effective.

To me, the odds of recovery without early treatment are low. And consider what is at stake!

Perhaps if the someone who stutters that you know is someone close to you, you can support them in the treatment process, whenever that takes place.