Stuttering can be common in your little one—after all, he’s got so much going on in his mind and he’s still getting a grasp of the language. But how do you know when your child needs help?
WORDS MING E. WONG
What do famous people like Winston Churchill (British Prime Minister and great war orator), Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean and Johnny English) and James Earl Jones (actor and the voice of Darth Vader and Mufasa in The Lion King) have in common? They were all stutterers in their younger years. No, Colin Firth wasn’t a stutterer but he did win an Academy award for his performance in The King’s Speech. His character George VI had the stutterer’s nightmare – as King he had to address the public often and his stutter was a public embarrassment.
Stuttering, also called stammering, is a speech disorder whereby a person has problems communicating. He experiences a disruption to his speech rhythm due to an involuntary lack of co-ordination of speech muscles. It can be a repeat of initial sounds as in “M-M-My name is John” or prolonged pauses in which he can’t produce the sounds or words he needs: “I’ll come erm, erm, erm after six.”
Stuttering isn’t always a severe or permanent situation but when it is serious, it can create a lot of stress and make life difficult for the stutterers. Stutterers often talk about the laughter or bullying at school, the mean nicknames they got, or the fact that since speech is an outward sign of intelligence, teachers and fellow students often underestimate their abilities. So besides the emotional traumas and impact on personality, there are often social and career consequences as well. The actor James Earl Jones whose sonorous voice was one of his strongest assets spoke about how he withdrew into silence between the ages of six to 14, and it took one observant and determined teacher who made him recite poetry every day to overcame his stuttering.
In Singapore, it is estimated that more than one per cent of the population stammers.
Children who Stutter
According to Jiahui Tan, a Singaporean speech therapist, it is common for children to stutter between the ages of one and a half to five years in what is commonly referred to as developmental disfluency. “Even then, characteristics of developmental disfluency and actual stuttering differ. Developmental stuttering is usually characterised by repeated first sounds or words (no more than two repetitions). Children who stutter will usually have more than two repetitions, and can get stuck on sounds, syllables and words, with visible facial tension when they stutter.”
The age of the onset of stuttering, the time since the onset, gender and family history can all be risk factors. Children who stutter at a younger age are more likely to outgrow it. The longer a child stutters, the less he might be able to outgrow it without help. Boys are also more likely to stutter than girls and if we look hard enough, stutterers will find that they have had company within the family. Fortunately for the many bilingual or multilingual households in Singapore, there is little evidence to suggest that having to deal with more than one language is a cause of stuttering.