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Why Do People Stutter?

Stuttering is a neurological condition that affects the production of speech, whereby someone typically repeats, extends, or is unable to produce a sound.

The disfluency, a word used to describe the difference in speech pattern, may present as repetitions (D-d-d-dog), prolongations (Mmmmmmilk), or blocks (an absence of sound) or in some cases, a combination of all three. People who stutter may also have facial movements and ticks associated with stuttering.

Stuttering is variable in every way. It can present differently across a group of stutterers and also may be different for an individual day-to-day or situation-to-situation. For some people, fatigue, stress, and time pressure can directly increase their tendency to stutter.

Most people who stutter begin doing so in childhood between the ages of 2 – 8 years old. This is the developmental period in which they are learning to communicate. In rare cases, stuttering is the result of brain injury or severe psychological trauma and is known as ‘acquired stuttering’ and is quite different to developmental stuttering.

Before we get into the reasons behind stuttering let’s address, and sweep away, some of the myths.

  • Nervousness is not the cause of a person stuttering (although they may become nervous as a result of their stutter)
  • Stuttering is not a sign of reduced intelligence or capability
  • Stuttering is not a psychological problem (although co-occurring conditions of a psychological nature like anxiety can develop)
  • People who stutter are notalways shy and self-conscious (think of these famous stutterers: President Joe Biden, Marilyn Monroe, Emily Blunt, Elvis Presley, and Kendrick Lamar)
  • Stuttering cannot be cured (although there are a variety of effective treatment options available)

Many people find it hard to believe stuttering is not a psychological problem but, despite sometimes being triggered by emotional or situational factors, stuttering is basically neurological and physiological in nature.  Neurological means something relating to disorders of the nervous system and physiological means relating to the way in which a living organism or bodily part functions.

Current research states that stuttering is caused by a combination of factors working together to influence the speech of a person who stutters.

Language Development is the first of these factors. Stuttering most often begins when children’s language abilities are rapidly expanding. The child knows what they want to say but their motor pathways can’t get the words out smoothly. Longer and more complex sentences place higher demand on the brain. When the brain can’t keep up with language signals, stuttering can occur.

Genetics do play a part in why people stutter, although there is not a full understanding of why just yet. It is possible that a specific gene is responsible. One very interesting observation is that identical twins (who share the exact same genetic makeup) have more similar patterns of stuttering than fraternal twins ever do. So at this point in time, it is suggested that if you carry certain genes, you are more likely to stutter.

Emotions and the environment have an impact on stuttering but are not considered the primary cause of a stutter. Some children may stutter more when experiencing heightened emotions such as excitement and stress. Some children may be more aware of their stutter, which may cause feelings of anxiety, stress and lowered confidence. This may cause them to avoid social situations in which they need to verbally communicate with others.

While no one of these factors determines stuttering per se, the predominant theory suggests that a combination of them influences the brain activity of people who stutter. Research has shown there is more right hemisphere brain activity (and less left hemisphere activity) in adults who stutter and also that the pathways in the brain responsible for language look and function differently when stuttering occurs.

With approximately1 in 100 Australians stuttering the ongoing research into the condition will hopefully shine even more light on stuttering, and further hone the therapies used to support this condition.

Parents who are concerned about their child’s speech should seek help as early as possible. Early intervention is the most effective way to help children overcome stuttering and other communication difficulties. As outlined earlier, there is no perfect cure for stuttering but people who stutter can learn to speak more easily, feel better about themselves, and communicate more effectively with the help of a speech pathologist.

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