The effects of stuttering

Posted on 25 April 2013

Interestingly, most people who stutter speak fluently when they are alone, when they speak in unison, when they whisper and when they sing. Dina Lilian who established the Stuttering Clinic at the Wits Donald Gordon hospital and is the South African representative for the ISA (International Stuttering Association) and ICA (International Cluttering Association), discusses the effects stuttering may have as well as treatments that could help. (Read Dina’s previous post on stuttering here.)

Is there a difference between ‘normal dysfluency’ in young children and ‘stuttering’?
Most children undergo a stage of development during which they experience ‘normal dysfluencies’. Pausing, repeating words and halting speech are some of the dysfluencies that occur when a child is developing their speech and language skills. Approximately 85% of children experience dysfluency during the years of very rapid language development, which usually occurs between the ages of 2 to 5 years old, but most children outgrow this dysfluency.

When normal dysfluency occurs so often that it interferes with speech or causes distress to either the speaker or the listener then stuttering may develop. If relaxed repetitions become very tense and the child struggles to finish a word then he or she may be stuttering. Children showing early signs of stuttering should be referred to a speech therapist who specialises in stuttering as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, you cannot predict whether a child will outgrow normal dysfluency or may become a person who stutters.

How does stuttering affect a child at school?
Stuttering is no trivial complaint and for those insufficiently equipped to cope, the consequences can be tragic. At school, stuttering can conceal a learner’s intelligence, impede progress and expose a child to ridicule and social isolation.
School can be stressful at times for any child. For one who is afraid to read aloud, speak, give an answer, act in a play or even to talk at break, the stresses and anxieties are even more acute or significantly exacerbated.

How does stuttering affect an adult?
Joseph Sheehan, a speech pathologist, compares stuttering in an adult to an iceberg. In this theory, Joseph compares the observable part of the iceberg that is seen above the waterline to the stuttered speech (repetitions and blocks), which is also known as the ‘overt’ aspect of stuttering. The unobservable part of the iceberg (i.e. the part that remains hidden below the water) is compared to the large mass of negative emotions that may be associated with stuttering and may also be referred to as ‘covert’ aspect of stuttering. This may include feelings of fear, embarrassment, frustration and guilt.

Stuttering may affect a person’s day-to-day life as it may dictate their choice of career and may cause them to avoid using the telephone, meeting/talking to new people or even ordering food at a restaurant. For some individuals, the fears and anxieties about stuttering are more disabling than the physical stuttering. Feelings adults who stutter describe include frustration, embarrassment, helplessness and isolation.

I read about a new cure for stuttering. Is there such a thing?
There are no instant or ‘magical’ cures for stuttering. Speech therapy does not produce overnight results. A therapist with a special interest in stuttering can help children, teenagers, young adults and even older adults make significant progress towards fluency. It is never too late for intervention! However, early intervention, for a child who is dysfluent and whom a parent is concerned about, is recommended.

There are a variety of successful approaches for treating both children and adults who stutter but the most appropriate approach will depend on the nature of the person’s stutter. Every person who stutters is unique and thus therapy needs to be tailored to his/her specific needs.

Attendance at a self-help group for people who stutter can also be beneficial and is recommended. Speakeasy is such a support group for people who stutter, their family members and friends. There are branches of Speakeasy in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. For more information, email Dina Lilian at

In her next post Dina gives suggestions when speaking to someone who stutters.

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Published in Expert Articles

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