Tune in to kids' speech - Subtle signs of stuttering could go unnoticed

Greenville News, Greenville, SC. Published: Friday, May 4, 2007 - 2:00 am By Eric Connor STAFF WRITER econnor@greenvillenews.com

It might be hard to imagine, but the man with one of the most recognizable voices in modern entertainment suffered from a childhood stuttering problem so severe that he refused to speak.

That would be Darth Vader, known to us in a galaxy not-so-far away as actor James Earl Jones. He's not alone: Winston Churchill, Tiger Woods and Jimmy Stewart are among a number of famous figures who have endured the speech disorder.

It goes to show that stuttering doesn't have to be a deterrent to success, especially when the problem is caught before a child enters grade school.

And the good news is that there's help ? free help, even. Advertisement

But, experts say, parents shouldn't underestimate the effect stuttering can have on even the youngest children, whether a matter of school performance or simple self-esteem.

And determining whether your child suffers from what speech pathologists refer to as "speech disfluency" isn't as simple as it might seem.

The traditional perception of stuttering ? the staccato-like repetition of consonants (sp-sp-sp-sp-speech) ? only paints part of the picture.

The disfluency problem is often far more complex, says Martha McDade, a speech language pathologist with the South Carolina Scottish Rite Foundation's Childhood Language Disorders program, which offers free speech therapy for pre-schoolers.

"There are a lot of different stutters, or disfluencies," McDade says.

Speaking with a lisp and repetition of a sound are conspicuous, she says, but other problems are lesser known and can be more difficult to recognize.

For instance, children might draw out their vowels (Whaaaaaaaaaat is that?) in an effort to summon the words they seek to complete a sentence.

They might mix up the gender of pronouns or emphasize words in strange parts of sentences. And some disfluencies can't be heard at all, like when children open their mouths only to find they can't say anything at all.

"Sometimes you will see some struggle in the face or neck or sometimes a complete block," McDade says. "You'll actually have to look at the child to see it."

The problems generally start early, and getting help early goes a long way toward avoiding larger problems later, says Jane Fraser, president of the Stuttering Foundation of America (www.stutteringhelp.org).

As many as 5 percent of American children develop a disfluency from the time they begin to speak, Fraser says. Of that group, Fraser says, 80 percent simply grow out of it, usually within three to six months, without any form of therapy.

It's the remaining 20 percent, a sizeable portion of the population, she says, who need professional help.

Fixing disfluency problems is important to a child's development, educators say.

Children entering grade school who can't communicate effectively can suffer both scholastically and socially with their peers.

"It's imperative that speech issues are approached early," says Sherri Harling, a first-grade teacher at Bryson Elementary School. ?Learning to read is often more difficult when a child has speech difficulties. It's always better to hear there is nothing wrong than to prolong a problem and develop patterns of incorrect speech."

Parents should be on the lookout for problems beginning around age 2, McDade says. There is no definitive age, McDade says, but children as young as age 3 who can't be understood by strangers can be candidates for speech therapy.

Too often, Fraser says, parents are too quick to dismiss a problem because of the stigma attached to children who suffer disfluencies.

Disfluency, Fraser says, is not a sign of limited intelligence. In fact, Fraser says, many children have a huge spurt in vocabulary but just can't quite put the words together.

The reasons for stuttering aren't exactly known. However, there are ways at home, without professional help, to make speaking easier for children.

Stress can be a factor, whether a domineering older sibling, the arrival of a new baby, not feeling well or starting not to feel well, being excited, being tired or just a lot of activity going on around them.

Speaking to children in an unhurried way and not rushing their speech is a tremendous help, Fraser says. That means not starting a sentence before they finish or letting their older siblings speak for them.

You can also reduce the number of specific questions you ask, Fraser says. Ask more open-ended questions, she says, such as "I wonder what you did at school today?"

Set aside specific, one-on-one time, she says, and read books that offer rhyme and repetition.

"You don't need all the big, fancy books," Fraser says. "Nowadays, parents want to have the smartest, brightest kid. Just go back to the old nursery rhymes and build that strong foundation."

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