If you would like more information on the Lidcombe Program for Early Childhood Stuttering, please visit www.allislandspeech.com
Fiona Baker bodyandsoul.com.au
At least a quarter of child stutterers will need some form of treatment. And the earlier, the better.
For Gary*, watching The King’s Speech was a painful process. As a former stutterer – who still occasionally relapses when anxious – the movie re-opened some old childhood wounds.
“I can’t remember not stuttering,” says the 49-year-old who eventually in his 20s learnt to control his stammer. “But back then it was considered ‘my affliction’ and nothing much was done to treat it.
“I grew up in the country and I just had to deal with it. The thing is, I couldn’t deal with it – I was teased, even by my siblings, and became quiet and withdrawn and felt isolated and unable to make friends.”
It’s estimated that up to one in 10 kids are like Gary – that is, they stutter. But today, thanks to a whole lot of research – an area in which Australia is the leader – speech pathologists and other medical professionals know that the key to treating stuttering is to get in early.
Professor Mark Onslow, foundation director of the Australian Stuttering Research Centre in Sydney, says the long-term effects of stuttering can be much more catastrophic than those depicted in the film.
“The King’s Speech is an outstanding film but presents a somewhat controlled depiction of stuttering in comparison to many of the debilitating cases we see clinically,” he says.
“Without early intervention, stuttering can have a devastating impact on an individual’s academic, emotional, social and occupational potential and development.”
Not an anxiety disorder
Professor Onslow calls stuttering a “mysterious” condition as it can occur very suddenly in children after a period of normal speech and if not addressed prior to pre-school years can be extremely hard to treat.
But while The King’s Speech implied the condition was a result of childhood trauma, Professor Onslow insists stuttering is not a psychological disorder.
“[It] is a physical disorder related to neural processing, however, of course anxiety or stressful situations can make it worse and if left untreated, stuttering can indeed lead to life-long psychological problems,” he says.
Gary will attest to that – he still feels angry and even “ashamed” of his stuttering past and he believes it shaped his personality and outlook on life. “I won’t talk about it to anyone and will leave the room, or the house, if my family members ever raise it.”
Spotting the signs
According to the Australian Stuttering Research Centre (ASRC), onset can be gradual or sudden and typically occurs as children are starting to put words together into short sentences – so around three to four years of age. Boys are up to four times more likely to develop a stutter than girls.
“In most cases, the first sign of stuttering is the child repeating syllables such as ‘I…I…I…wanna…’, or ‘Where…where…where is ….?’,” says the centre.
While many kids can grow out of it, at least a quarter will probably need some treatment. Most treatments focus on directly influencing the child’s speech patterns. The ASRC recommends the Lidcombe program for kids which involves parents giving children positive feedback, at certain times during the day, when their child speaks fluently (parents are taught how to do this).
To get an assessment or investigate treatment, the Speech Pathologists Association can help you find a medical professional who specialises in stuttering.
If parents are at all worried about their child, the Sydney University-based ASRC has a website and also can provide free treatment for adults and kids who stutter.