I remember the first time my son started stringing words together. “I want, want, want, want a car!” he’d squeal with delight, toddling over to our giant bin of toys. I thought nothing of it. But our doctor noticed his habit of repeating some words and referred him to a speech therapist. She recommended we just keep an eye on it and, luckily, the repetitions went away within a few months without intervention.
What many parents consider stuttering is often a normal stage of speech development. Briefly repeating words or phrases, using fillers such as “um” and “ah,” and restarting sentences are common tendencies in kids who are learning the gift of gab. “It happens when a child is pushing his speech to its limit during a rapid period of development,” says Deryk Beal, a clinician-scientist and speech-language pathologist at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto.
However, if your child’s flow of speech is broken by frequent single-syllable repetitions (ba-ba-ba-balloon), prolongations (mmmmy, ssssay) or temporary blocks (when there’s physical tension and a buildup of pressure, and no air or sound comes out as your child attempts to speak), he or she may have a stuttering disorder.
What causes stuttering?
“There isn’t a single identifiable ‘cause’ of stuttering,” says Suzanne Martin, a speech-language pathologist in Toronto. “But we do know that it happens when there’s a break-down in the coordination of some or all of the components involved in speech production—from the level of breath control to the movements of the vocal cords, tongue, jaw and lips.” Roughly five percent of kids ages two to six are affected. While stress and anxiety can make a stutter worse, they don’t cause it. Stuttering tends to run in families and is three times more common in boys. Children with developmental disorders or disabilities—including autism and Down syndrome—are also more likely to stutter than the rest of the general population.
How can you help?
If you suspect your child has a stuttering disorder, Beal says it’s best to get help right away rather than taking a wait-and-see approach, since early intervention is beneficial. Record a video of the speech behaviours you’re concerned about and have your child assessed by a speech therapist. (In many cases, a referral can be made directly by a parent or teacher, though some provinces require it to come from a doctor.) The therapist will monitor your child and teach you how to interact with him to encourage smoother speech.
“Typically, within a year or two of the stuttering onset, between 80 and 90 percent of children go on to make great improvements with treatment or improve spontaneously on their own,” says Beal. The most important thing when talking to a child who stutters, he adds, is to “listen to what they’re saying instead of how they’re saying it.” That means not commenting on the stutter, or asking the child to “slow down” or “take a breath and start over.” These remarks draw attention to the issue, which can exacerbate it.
Mom-of-two Alicia Shore* sought therapy for her three-and-a-half-year-old son, Connor,* after noticing him stutter off and on for a few months. “I hoped it would just go away, but it got worse—to the point where sometimes he’d get stuck on a word and not be able to get it out,” she says. She and Connor began weekly speech therapy sessions, where Shore learned the Lidcombe program (see “Did you know?” below), which included giving her son a daily severity rating out of 10. Four months later, she has seen some progress—but there have also been setbacks. “Every day is different,” she says. “But we started treatment early, and we’re optimistic he’ll eventually get past this.” (Update: Shore says Connor slowly but surely grew out of his stutter and is today stutter free.)
Did you know?
If you meet with a speech therapist about your preschooler’s stuttering, you may hear about the Lidcombe program. This behavioural therapy involves parents learning how to give positive feedback for fluent speech as well as gentle prompts for correction of stuttered speech. Practitioners are available across Canada, and according to the Canadian Stuttering Association, the program is very successful in treating preschool-aged kids.
*Names have been changed