February 2011

When Words Get Stuck
An Update on Stuttering

Cartoon of a woman speaking.

In “The King’s Speech,” a recent movie set in pre-World War II England, soon-to-be King George VI has to conquer a stammer (Americans call it a stutter) that has hindered him since childhood and makes public speaking an agony. With the help of a speech therapist, the king learns how to control his stutter enough to get through a speech. But King George never completely defeated his stutter. Although he managed to overcome the characteristic repetition of sounds at the beginnings of words, in old films you can still see him pausing, grimacing, gathering his courage and moving on as best he can.

More than 50 years later, therapies for those who stutter aren’t that different from the king’s. Many, like King George's, focus on learning ways to minimize the impact of the disorder. They involve learning to speak more slowly, regulating breathing, and gradually progressing from single-syllable responses to longer words and more complex sentences. 

Stuttering affects more than 3 million people in America and another 60 million worldwide. Approximately 75% to 85% of those who stutter in childhood will outgrow it when they become adults. However, there is currently no way to know who will stop and who will continue. Boys are more than twice as likely as girls to stutter, a difference that increases even more in adulthood, when men are 3 to 4 times more likely to stutter than women.

People have recognized stuttering as a speech disorder for thousands of years. They’ve speculated about what causes it for just as long. In King George’s time, it was thought to stem from childhood emotional trauma or an unhealthy attachment to a parent, usually the mother. Today, some people still mistakenly think that stuttering is caused by psychological or social problems, or nervousness and anxiety. 

That’s beginning to change because of a recent discovery by a team of researchers led by NIH scientists. They identified changes in 3 different genes that appear to play a role in stuttering. The researchers propose that part of the brain dedicated to fluency of speech may be uniquely sensitive to problems caused by defects in these genes. Further research could provide new insights into what causes stuttering. Eventually, this work may suggest ways to correct the problem.

Researchers hope that one day stuttering can be treated as a biological disorder with a medical cure, not a character weakness. In the meantime, if you or your child stutters, a variety of treatments are available. Talk to a speech-language pathologist—a health professional trained to test and treat children with voice, speech and language problems—about the options.