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Stammering: Tips To Help You Overcome It

A stammerer knows precisely what he wants to say but cannot, for the moment, say it because of an involuntary repetition, prolongation or cessation of the speech sound.
Dr Ajit Harisinghani, Speech Therapist, discusses the pathology and the treatment of this malady

Stammering: Tips To Help You Overcome It

There are more than 45 million people in the world today who stammer and approximately 10 million live in India. Stammering is predominantly a 'male' condition (80% of all stammerers are male) and it usually affects the first-born male child. The majority of stammerers (65%) have a family history of the disorder; usually the father who stammers or speaks at a rapid rate. Nearly always, stammering starts before the child is 5 years of age. If left untreated, it peaks in severity around the age of 10 to 18 years and then begins to stabilize or fade away as the stammerer grows older.

A stammerer knows precisely what he wants to say but cannot, for the moment, say it because of an involuntary repetition, prolongation or cessation of the speech sound. Research suggests that the disorder might be caused due to a 'neurological mistiming' during the act of speech which leaves the stammerer confused about when exactly to say the word he wants to say. Speaking is not merely the movement of the tongue but involves a fine coordination of both mental and physical processes. Like all other physical actions, the act of speech is the result of neuro-muscular coordination which involves the transmitting of electro-chemical messages from the brain to the appropriate muscle groups. For everyone of us (non-stammerers and stammerers alike), this neuro-muscular system sometimes trips and fails especially during moments of inadequate emotional control. For the stammerer, this 'tripping' occurs much more frequently than it does for normal speakers. Whenever he faces what he perceives as a 'feared' situation, the stammerer adopts a mind-set which triggers off spasms of speech-blocks. Such fears can also center around certain speech sounds or even certain people.

Actually, all stammerers have periods of fluency when they are emotionally relaxed but revert back to dysfluent speech under stress. Answering the roll call in class, speaking on the telephone, talking to someone in authority, speaking in a group, attending a job interview, etc. are some such pressure situations which might cause an increase in stammering behavior.

One more of the unusual facts about stammering is that even the severest stammerer can sing fluently without any speech blocks. This is because when we sing a song, we know exactly when to say the words and there is no ambiguity in our minds about this timing. In conversational speech however, we cannot bank on any such cues but as normally fluent speakers, most of us do not need these cues. However, without these cues, a stammerer's speech becomes disoriented, because of his 'wrongly tuned' neurological speech-timing system. He experiences difficulty in maintaining a smooth forward flow of words in the sentences he speaks. Frequently repeated, these instances of stammering arouse fear in the mind of the child who stammers. With growing years, these fears keep snowballing until the stammerer begins to experience tremendous frustration, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, even guilt every time he opens his mouth to speak. He begins to recoil from speaking. The smirks on the faces of his listeners which his speech sometimes elicits do nothing to help his self confidence. In every other respect, except speaking ability, the stammerer is a completely normal human being, as good or bad as the rest of us. In fact most stammerers are sensitive and intelligent people.

Some psychiatrists might prescribe tranquilizers in the belief that relieving stress would help speech fluency. Such drugs usually complicate, rather than resolve the issue and are strongly de-recommended for the treatment of stammering by most speech pathologists.

Dr. Peter Rosenberger, M.D., Director, Learning Disorders Unit at Harvard Medical School, Boston says "Since the increase in stammering during anxiety is a common experience, it might be assumed that drugs that relieve anxiety would be beneficial. However, minor tranquilizers have been tried many times without success".

Hypnosis has also shown unpromising results in the treatment of stammering. A few stammerers who might become fluent while under a trance invariably return to stammering when out of the hypnotic state. Yoga and meditation might really hold the key to solving the problem of stammering. With the greater sense of emotional and intellectual balance that these disciplines promote, the stammerer might find them of tremendous help in his attempts to develop better control over his speech.

These are aspects that can be changed through self-therapy to help the person overcome his speaking difficulty. Speech is one of our body's strongest habits and stammered speech is also a habit. Stammering is not a disease and therefore, it cannot be treated through medicines. The stammering child or adult has to be helped to develop a new, more fluent manner of speech through an intensive re-orientation program which focuses on modifying his physical manner of talking as well as changing his mental attitude towards the problem.

Many of us might experience a feeling of embarrassment when we converse with stammerers; some of us look away while others go ahead to complete their sentences for them. In talking with a stammerer, the following hints might be of help:
  • Listen to what is said, not how it is said.
  • Be patient and don't hurry the person talking.
  • Try to maintain natural eye contact.
  • Simplistic advice ("breathe properly", "don't worry", "don't be afraid", etc.) though well- meant is not always helpful.
  • Stammerers have difficulty when talking but don't assume they are stupid or confused about what they are saying.
  • Many stammerers have difficulty when they speak on the telephone. Please do not hangup if the caller is taking longer than usual or if he is silent for a while.
Stammerers usually try and hide their speech problem from their listeners. This attempt at camouflage is counter-productive because it only acts as psychological 'fuel' for even more speech-blocks. If the stammerer is open about his speech difficulty, he experiences lesser stress and is able to speak with greater control.

In the final analysis, stammering can be overcome if the sufferer seeks scientific, professional guidance and is ready to work towards achieving speech fluency through regular practice of therapeutic techniques. It certainly cannot disappear by ingesting some magic potent!

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