What do Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Nicholas Brendan, singer Carly Simon, and TV host Mike Rowe have in common? They are all among the more than three million Americans who stutter. More importantly, they clearly demonstrate that it is possible to overcome or work through stuttering with proper care.
Unlike a generation ago, experts no longer believe the best way to deal with stuttering is to ignore it or that treatment would call attention to it, making it worse. Speech disorder researchers now recognize that the social problems caused by stuttering begin before kindergarten. Children can recognize stuttering by age three, according to recent research, and start to snub stammerers before age four. That’s why it’s important to address poor fluency early and seek treatment sooner rather than later.
The causes of stuttering vary, and can be difficult to pin down. Sometimes it’s a neurological issue, sometimes it’s a physiological abnormality in the structure of the mouth or jaw, and sometimes it’s both. One thing that doesn’t cause stuttering is emotional trauma; there is no evidence of anyone developing a stutter as a result of emotional problems alone. However, studies have indicated a genetic predisposition to developing a stammer, and life events—including trauma, but also as simple as learning grammar—may trigger stuttering in people with this predisposition.
Chinese researchers have found that speech therapy can reduce stuttering in as little as one week. The therapy in the study involved repeating words and reading aloud. Stutterers in the study who had received therapy showed marked improvement in various measures of severity of stuttering. Brain scans performed on the volunteers also showed changes in brain structure in areas related to speech processing—though it’s not clear whether the improvement caused the changes or the changes caused the improvement. A device to provide tactile feedback during speech—the ability for stutterers to feel themselves forming words—also seems to lead to improvement quickly. The feedback device, about the size of a cell phone, is reportedly less tiring than conventional therapy while showing the same or better results.