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There are therapies when children don't outgrow stuttering

Stuttering isn't uncommon, but there are effective therapies, experts say.

Stuttering is not uncommon among adults in the United States, and is more prevalent among children. Sometimes children recover on their own and other times, depending on the level of stuttering, they require therapy, according to John Sloan, a board-certified fluency specialist and the director for the Center for Fluency Enhancement at the Hearing and Speech Agency in Baltimore. There are therapies, although they're not always covered by insurance, said Sloan and center colleague Jennifer Smith, a speech-language pathologist.

How common is stuttering and what can cause it?

One in 20 children, and about one percent of the overall population will experience stuttering. The stuttering experience will vary among individuals, often starting in the developmental stage, or what I like to call "dress rehearsal" of speech development around ages five-six. There are a few theories on what can cause persistent stuttering and researchers are working hard to pinpoint it. Currently, we know that it is not a learned behavior and there is a genetic component (it can be passed down through families).

How is it diagnosed?

Stuttering should be diagnosed by a speech-language pathologist with specific training in fluency disorders. They will look at the physical, cognitive and emotional aspects of dysfluency to determine whether or not stuttering is present. This process often helps families to decipher between behaviors that are typical of early language development and those more characteristic of persistent stuttering.

It's helpful for families to remember that the smaller the unit — a letter, word or phrase — that is repeated, the higher the risk for stuttering. For example, a child sounding out a letter repeatedly or holding onto the letter's pronunciation longer shows more of a risk for stuttering than if the child repeats a longer unit, such as a phrase. If stuttering is identified, the next step is to evaluate the impact it has on the individual's daily life. This includes looking at social, educational and vocational activities and how the stutter may be affecting them. These factors will all go into creating a customized treatment plan to best suit the individual's needs.

Can stuttering go away on its own or is treatment always needed?

Many children experience a period of developmental stuttering, the kind that can be "outgrown." This spontaneous recovery is typically associated with early speech and language learning and identifies individuals who are likely to develop fluent speech without treatment. For others, this period of non-fluent speech may be associated with struggle behaviors, which may signal a persistent pattern of stuttering.

Persistent stuttering is not expected to resolve on its own, but it can change over time. Individuals who stutter (and their families) choose when or if they want to receive therapy for their stuttering depending on how big of a role it plays in their lives. Some choose not to receive treatment because they are comfortable with their level of stuttering. Others work consistently at reducing the frequency and severity of their stuttering, managing how stuttering affects their work, school and social environments.

What treatments are available for stuttering?

Treatment is available, and early intervention is important.

Unless the stuttering can be attributed to an injury or neurological event such as a stroke or [traumatic brain injury], however, it's not likely to be covered under insurance. Differences in type of treatment depend more on each person's individual needs more than its cause. At HASA's Center for Fluency Enhancement, all treatment plans are comprehensive and customized to meet the unique needs of each family and person who stutters, across the life span, seeing children as young as two and clients through their senior years. We also offer support groups, family education and advocacy to support the overall treatment plan for stuttering.

Delays or breaks in the treatment plan are not ideal. However they frequently happen while funding sources for therapy services are identified by families. The Baltimore Area Stuttering Support Group, one of the largest and most active groups of its kind in the country, offers free meetings at the Hearing and Speech Agency on the second Tuesday of each month from 7 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. The Stuttering Foundation of America and the National Stuttering Association are the two largest national websites that recommend providers for people to receive treatment for stuttering.

What's the proper way to respond when encountering a child or adult who is stuttering?

Listen to them. Persons who stutter should be treated the same as any other individual and given the opportunity to participate in daily situations involving communication. As with any other conversation, make eye contact and use the proper body language to show you are engaged in the interaction.

People who stutter are generally eager to communicate, no matter how hesitant they may seem in initiating conversation. It's important to allow the person some additional time to speak or respond and avoid the temptation to finish someone's sentences for them. If you know someone who may be hesitant about communicating, you can help by being the one to initiate the opportunity to have a conversation.

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