According to the National Stuttering Association, more than 3 million American adults stutter and 1 out of 30 children confronts the challenge daily. Learn more about childhood stuttering and a study by local experts seeking participants.
Dr. Katerina Ntourou has spent the last 10 years of her life hyper-focused on researching and teaching about stuttering in children. She is director of the Child and Family Stuttering Lab and an assistant professor at the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.
A mom herself, Dr. Ntourou feels honored every time she has the opportunity to develop a trusting relationship with a family whom she can guide through the sometimes painful journey of helping a child who stutters become a confident communicator.
Dr. Ntourou is seeking participants for a research study on children who stutter, so we asked her to share what she wishes the general population knew about stuttering:
How prevalent is stuttering among children?
If you go to a preschool or daycare, you’ll find about 5 percent of kids in this age range stutter. Eighty percent of those kids who begin to stutter between ages 2.5 and 3.5, when stuttering is most common, will stop stuttering without any treatment. If you follow up with those kids when they are elementary age, only about 1 percent will continue to stutter and potentially have a lifelong stutter. Boys are far more likely to persist in stuttering than girls. If a child stutters and also has a speech/articulation problem, they are more likely to persist in stuttering, as is a child who starts to stutter later, like ages 4 or 5.
What causes a child to stutter?
Stuttering is not learned or related to something parents have done wrong, and it does not persist into adulthood because parents or others draw attention to it. Rather stuttering is a neurodevelopmental disorder caused by the complex interaction of different factors including genetics, environment and brain structure and function. About 60 percent of children who stutter have someone else in their family who stutters. Also, there is ample research evidence to suggest differences in brain structure and function between children who stutter and those who do not.
When should a child be referred to a professional for stuttering intervention?
Sometimes there is an assumption, often by pediatricians, that professional help should be sought if the child is at an increased risk to persist in stuttering, like if the child has been stuttering for more than a year and his stuttering has gotten more severe.
But if I see that a child’s stuttering is impacting the child and the family, regardless of whether they are predisposed to persist, I would consider treatment. In the early preschool years, the goal of therapy is not only to enhance fluency but also to empower and educate the family about stuttering, reduce the impact of stuttering on the family and foster acceptance of stuttering. Parents often, understandably, start to project to the future — will my child be made fun of, will they do well in school — and while we acknowledge and validate parents’ fears, it is important to help them focus on the here and now.
In later years, when children are introduced to speech tools that can help them be more fluent it is important to maintain a very fine balance between encouraging them to use their speech tools while reinforcing the message that stuttering is OK and they can be competent communicators and successful in life regardless of their level of fluency.
What are some strategies parents can employ at home to support a child who stutters?
Let the child finish what they are saying and don’t interrupt. Get to their eye level and show you are truly listening to what they saying, not how they are saying it. Encourage everyone in the family to do the same. Above all, show your child not just with words but with facial expressions that you accept him the way he is. While parents’ intentions are good in giving advice like “speak slower, take a deep breath, think before you talk,” I suggest resisting giving that advice because it’s so hard for kids to do so.
How can parents teach kids who don’t stutter how to support those who do?
It all comes down to teaching kids how to react to someone who is different from them. First and foremost, teach kids not to tease. It’s normal for kids to ask questions — like why does he speak like that? — when they hear someone stutter. Depending on the relationship, they can ask the other child or person about their stuttering. Especially if the child who stutters is older and in therapy, it can be very empowering for them to educate others about stuttering. They are the experts!
What do you hope to learn more about in your current research on kids who stutter?
For a person who stutters, there are a bunch of things happening under the surface, including how they feel about themselves. School-age kids and adolescents often feel shame, embarrassment and like they aren’t as competent as other kids.
Adults who stutter are at a dramatically increased risk to develop social anxiety than adults who do not stutter. Social anxiety can negatively impact their progress in speech therapy and increase their chances of relapsing after therapy. Although it is likely stuttering contributes to the development of anxiety, not everyone who stutters has anxiety. Through my research I want to identify early risk factors in anxiety development so we can recognize kids who stutter who might be prone to develop anxiety later in life. The participants will help us learn more about stuttering, which in turn will help us develop novel and better treatment approaches to help children who stutter.
Do you have a child who stutters or know someone who does?
Who is eligible to join Dr. Ntourou’s research study on stuttering:
Kids ages 3 to 6 who stutter who can commit to one Zoom visit and one in-lab visit for three hours over two sessions. Children receive a speech-language assessment and assessment of stuttering from an expert in the field and will complete tasks on a computer while parents fill out questionnaires. Parents are compensated for time and travel. Find out more by contacting Dr. Ntourou at 405-271- 4214, ext. 46069 or OUStutteringLab@ouhsc.edu.