What to do when a child develops a stutter

By Steve Deane

Quinn Deane, 4, during with speech language therapist Tegwen Fry. Photo / supplied
Quinn Deane, 4, during with speech language therapist Tegwen Fry. Photo / supplied

The first time our four-year-old son Quinn stuttered I burst out laughing.

He wanted something; wanted it quite badly. But he couldn't get past the first word of his sentence

"I I I I I I I I I", he spluttered. It had never happened before, and there was no reason to suspect it would happen again. So it seemed comical.

But by the next day he could barely get a word out at all. He became so frustrated he would slap the sides of the head with his hands. Hard. Our happy-go-lucky, charmingly-naughty little boy had developed a stutter - and it wasn't a laughing matter

What to do?

With around 10 per cent of kids developing a stutter in the preschool years, it's a question plenty of Kiwi parents wrestle with. And there aren't really any easy answers.

We applied for treatment from the Ministry of Education through Quinn's early childhood centre, and also looked into other options.

That led us to the Stuttering Treatment and Research Trust (START).

Quinn was assessed by START's manager Janelle Irvine, an experienced speech language therapist who specialises in treating stuttering.

Quinn's stutter wasn't overly severe, but because of his age it was a concern, Janelle advised us.

Stuttering occurs most commonly in children between the ages of two and four and will often resolve itself without treatment.

In Quinn's case, four was relatively late to develop a stutter, so he would likely be prioritised in the public system for treatment.

"Because we know that stuttering is most effectively treated in pre-school and early school age years those children are usually prioritised [by the Ministry] to be seen," says Irvine.

"The Ministry is primarily funded to see children up to the age of eight, with a particular focus on early intervention. But it is a finite service and they can only see so many kids."

For Quinn, that meant a four-month wait before he was seen by a publicly-funded speech language therapist.

His stutter fluctuated, at times almost disappearing entirely only to return with a tongue-grabbing vengeance a few days later.

We were lucky enough to be able to pay for treatment as an interim measure, but that would not be an option for many.

A registered charity, START receives around 30 per cent of its funding from the Ministry of Health and another 40 per cent from trusts and grants. The remainder is made up of a $60-per-session charge ($45 for Community Service Card holders). Treatment sessions should ideally be weekly, and when you factor in the cost of travel and time off work, the cost is significant, and for working parents sticking to the schedule can be tough.

"It is a huge issue," says Irvine. "We are centrally located [in Parnell] so we can be as accessible as possible but the reality is with traffic and distance we are not as accessible as we would like to be."

Most stuttering in children either naturally resolves or responds to treatment, so the prevalence of stuttering declines from 10 per cent to just one per cent of the adult population.

But that is still a lot of people.

"If you think about it, in Auckland there should be 15,000 adults floating around who stutter," says Irvine. "We don't see anywhere near that - around 100 to 150 new clients each year."

Many people who stutter never seek treatment.

While there are a number of celebrated cases of high achievers who have overcome or successfully managed their stutters - actor Sam Neill, singer Megan Washington,

Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft, Xero founder and CEO Rod Drury and the Parenting Place's founder Ian Grant - the condition can also be severely limiting.

"A lot of people aren't very open about it or try to hide it," says Irvine. "They choose jobs that don't involve them talking."

Today [Saturday October 22] is International Stuttering Awareness Day. Held annually since the 1998, the theme of this year's event is 'stuttering pride'.

"It's the idea of owning the fact that you stutter, being okay with it and accepting it," says Irvine. "It should be seen as just another difference, not as a disability. The fact is that people who stutter are just as intelligent as everybody else. It is not an intellectual disability. It is just that frustration of knowing exactly what you want to say and not being able to say it."

The difficulty in treating the condition post-childhood makes learning to be at peace with their stutter vital for adults.

"With a pre-schooler the brain is still developing so the idea is to rewire it," says Irvine. "That gets harder as you get older. You can do that to a certain degree but it takes a lot more effort."

Whether our little boy will end up having a stutter in adulthood is impossible to say. He has made progress using the Lidcombe Programme commonly used to treat preschool stuttering, but a step forward is often followed by a step back.

That's the way it tends to be with stuttering.

"Although stuttering is thought to be a physical disorder - to do with problems in the wiring of the speech part of the brain, there is still a lot that is unknown, such as which kids will 'grow out of stuttering' and which will not," says Irvine.

"What we do know is that when a client accepts their stutter and lets go of the anxiety around how they sound, their confidence infects so many other areas of their life".


International Stuttering Awareness Day
• Every year on October 22
• This year's theme is 'stuttering pride'
• Campaign to raise awareness and destigmatise stuttering
• Around 10 per cent of Kiwi kids will develop a stutter
• Around 1 per cent of the population (45,000 people) stutters
• Men/boys are more than three times more likely to stutter than women/girls

For more information on world stuttering awareness day visit
http://www.isastutter.org/what-we-do/isad

For advice on stuttering treatment visit
http://www.stuttering.co.nz/

To see photos and videos of some New Zealand stutters visit
http://facebook.com/stutteringnz

- NZ Herald

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