Stammering: latest research findings


There is well documented evidence that if you change how a stammerer hears they way they are speaking, they will stammer less.  Using this finding, 10 years ago saw the introduction of new devices (especially in-ear devices) that purported to help people stop stammering.  But these fluency aids have not lived up to early promise- indeed many  people who were thought to be ‘cured’ have found their stammer is back, as marked as before.

Now Oliver Cheadle has been conducting new research at UCL, this time using vibration, through the skin, rather than sound.  He discusses his findings with Lee Millam in this podcast.

Oli used a vibrotactile device.   On average, the device reduced stuttering by 22%, but the average figure masks massive variation.

  • Vibrotactile speech feedback significantly reduced stuttering, albeit much less so than in previous studies (an average 22% reduction in stuttering as compared to an average 71-80% reduction in earlier studies).
  • The different types of vibrotactile speech feedback used  (i.e. different placements on the body, different amplitudes, different delays) did not significantly affect how much it reduced stuttering.
  • There was a lot of variation between participants – one participant experienced a 60% reduction in stuttering under vibrotactile speech feedback while another experienced a 39% increase.

There was no carry-over – when the vibration was switched off, the person stuttered as usual.

Drawn to this area of research from his own personal circumstances, Oli’s conclusion is that some people will find the device useful for specific situations (perhaps when having to give a presentation), and it can be worn discreetly, at low vibration levels.

However, he counsels against miracle cures and suggests instead that the best course of action for people who stammer is to do therapy that focuses on accepting stammering; accepting that you are a person who stammers – but it is not the most important thing about you.

Picture: Art made by sound vibrations by Jennicatpink

  • Project 5am – The Dream
  • Lucky Dragons – Open Melody 
Some background information on Stammering
Stammering – or stuttering – is a relatively common speech problem in childhood but can also persist into adulthood.
Stammering is characterised by:
  • the repetition of sounds or syllables – such as saying ‘mu-mu-mu-mummy’
  • prolonging sounds – for example ‘mmmmmmummy’
  • pausing or ‘blocking’ – when a word gets stuck or doesn’t come out at all
It usually occurs at the beginning of speech, and people will often avoid certain words or speaking situations to try to hide it.
Stammering varies in severity from person to person. A person might find that they have periods of stammering followed by times when they speak relatively fluently.
Read more about the signs of stammering.
Types of stammering
There are two main types of stammer:
  • Developmental stammering is the most common type of stammering that many people are familiar with. It develops during childhood as a child is first learning how to speak.
  • Acquired or late-onset stammering can occur in older children and adults as the result of a severe head injurystroke or a progressive neurological disease (disease affecting the nervous system). It can also be caused by certain drugs or medication, or psychological or emotional trauma.
What causes stammering?
The exact cause of developmental stammering is still unclear, although it is largely thought to be the result of the parts of the brain involved in speech being ‘wired’ differently.
Studies have shown differences in the structure and functioning of the brain of people who stammer compared with most other people.
In young children, the wiring of the brain is still developing, which may be why many children eventually ‘grow out’ of stammering and why it is usually easier to treat children while they are still young.
Genes are also thought to play a role in many cases of stammering, as around two in every three people who stammer have a family history of the condition. This suggests that the genes a child inherits from their parents might make them more likely to develop a stammer.
Research has identified several genes that may contribute to stammering that runs in families, although exactly how these genes lead to the condition is currently unknown.
Who is affected
Stammering is common in young children. Estimates for developmental stammering vary, but it is often suggested that around one in 20 children will experience a phase of non-fluent speech. In around three in every four cases affecting young children, stammering will resolve over time with or without treatment. However, it is difficult to predict when this will happen and some children will require treatment to prevent the problem persisting into adulthood.
The condition is more likely to persist in males than females, which is why there are around four times as many men as women with a stammer. The reason for this is unclear.
It is estimated that one in every 100 adults has a stammer.
Getting help
If you have any concerns about your child’s speech and language development, seek advice.
Treatment is often highly successful in resolving stammers in pre-school age children, especially if it is received as soon as possible, so early referral to a specialist is key.
A good person to contact first may be your GP, who can discuss your concerns with you and refer you to a speech and language therapist (SLT) for an assessment if necessary. Alternatively, many speech and language services accept self-referrals from patients and parents.
You can contact the British Stammering Association helpline on 0845 603 2001 for advice about seeking help and information about the services available in your area.
It may also be worth seeking advice from your GP or an SLT if you are an adult with a stammer and it is having a significant impact on your social and work life.
How stammering is treated
There are many different speech and language therapy approaches that can help people to improve fluency and communication skills in people who stammer.
A therapist will work with you to come up with a suitable plan tailored to your or your child’s individual circumstances.
This may involve:
  • working to create an environment in which a child feels more relaxed and confident about their use of language
  • working on feelings associated with stammering, such as fear and anxiety
  • strategies to improve fluency and communication skills
Electronic ‘anti-stammering’ devices are also available and can be helpful for some people. These are designed to help people control their speech by giving them sound feedback, although they are not generally available on the NHS.

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