Guest Writer | Kelly Cheung
Affecting 70 million people worldwide in every language and culture, stammering (also referred as stuttering in the U.S.) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that creates speech problems, such as sudden involuntary pauses and a tendency to repeat the initial letters of words. Although everyone will experience a small degree of disfluency while speaker, a person who stammers experiences notable disfluency, with at least 10 per cent of their words being lost. With International Stammering Awareness day happening on 22nd October every year, it is the time for us to understand the unspeakable truth behind this disorder.
For most of history, stammering has been an excuse for mockery, prejudice and misguided ‘cures’ – most assume that it is caused by nervousness or lack of intelligence. However, no difference has ever been found between the intelligence of those who stammer and those who do not. In fact, illustrious people such as Issac Newton, Charles Darwin and Alan Turing all stammered to varying degrees rather undermines prejudices that it somehow implies lack of intelligence. While it is true that people who stammer are often nervous when speaking, the nervousness has been shown to be a result of stammering rather than a cause.
However, there are still many stereotypes that surround stammering, which include misconceptions that are often illegitimate and damaging; for instance, stammering is usually manipulated in films or TV as a tool for the sake of cruel laughs. This public misconception has only started to change since a few years ago, when the story of King George VI overcoming this common but terrifying speech disorder was accurately portrayed on award-winning film The King’s Speech. The startling performance from Firth captured the fear, the panic, the struggles and the unendurable tension of stammering patients perfectly, which allows us to experience a particular insight into stammering. Despite the success of the film in raising awareness of stammering, a recent study showed that the perceived public opinion of those with stammering is generally negatively and the condition is still severely misunderstood. The most effective ways to challenge the public stigma of stammering include education, activism and personal contact with people who stammer.
Rather than there being one clear-cut form of stammering, two types of stammering have been identified. Developmental, persistent stammering is classified as a neurological condition with genetic probabilities, which begins in early childhood (and the unlucky 1 per cent of the global population for whom it remains into adulthood) and approximately 60 per cent of those who stammer have a family member suffering the same condition. Another form of stammering, called neurogenic stammering, can be caused by certain injuries or diseases that impact the central nervous system. Unlike developmental or persistent stammering, neurogenic stammering can affect a person at any age.
The fluency most people take for granted depends on the perfect combination of various factors. Normal speech requires a series of precisely coordinated muscle movements and several areas of the brain to cooperate in a neat sequence. Kate Watkins and Jen Chesters from Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology has prominently found neural abnormalities in both adult and children stammers. Using diffusion tesnor imaging (DTI) and functional MRI, they found differences in white matter in the arcuate fasciculus, which is the region involved in speech production, and surrounding areas. These studies increasingly imply that stammering is caused by connection faults in brain networks associated with speech production.
Unfortunately, there are no miracle cures for stammering as each children or adult have individual needs. While the underlying cause of stammering is now understood, stammering speech can also be affected by a complex combination of environmental, linguistic and physical factors that are unique to the individual in their form and effects. There are ways, however, to manage a stammer and take steps toward fluency. Speech therapy has achieved great success and early intervention in children is often seen as critical; by shaping the child’s experience, the ongoing wiring process in the child’s rapidly developing brain can be affected as stammering emerges in childhood as an abnormality in the brain’s neural circuits for speech.
With the current cut in Speech and Language Therapy services by the NHS and the condition not getting the serious research it deserves, it is crucial that we celebrate International Stammering Awareness Day, as associations, individuals and groups around the world organize events to mark the day and raise awareness of stammering to the public and decision makers. Charities such as The British Stammering Association, aims to use the received donations to conduct more promising research and to provide therapeutic resources for adults and children who stammer. Nevertheless, you can raise awareness in any way: talk about stammering, wear an awareness wristband, change your Facebook picture, share this article. Every little step counts.
Finally, here are a few tips on how a fluent speaker should behave during a conversation with someone who stammers:
- Ditch your labels and stereotypes – just treat them as normal people and expect to have a normal conversation with them.
- Don’t interrupt their sentences – don’t give uninvited advice about their speech or offer up potential ‘solutions’, such as ask them to ‘ slow down’ or ‘relax, as this may intensify their social anxiety.
- Wait patiently and listen – wait for the person to finish speaking then ask for clarification if you feel confused by what’s being said, rather than pretending to understand. Let them know you value their contributions to the conversation.
Let’s help educate the world about the unimaginable fear and cruelty that are faced by people who stammer, and inspire those around you who stammer to overcome obstacles and achieve their dreams.
Third Year Undergraduate in Psychology and Language Sciences at University College of London, Cheung is a dedicated musician and researcher in speech perception and production, and early cognitive and language development.