Mohan, a 24 years old electronics engineer, has been stammering ever since he can remember. The eldest son in his family, Mohan had a bad time at school because his speech was the focus of many unkind taunts from his classmates. As he entered college, he became an emotional loner and his stammering became so severe that he could not get even one smoothly spoken sentence out. “Answering questions in class or even saying the word ‘present’ during roll call was an impossibly difficult task” says Mohan, “I avoided speaking with anyone new and clung to one or two chaps whom I’d known at school.”
During his years at IIT, Mohan took control of his problem and practiced at changing the manner of his speech. With some professional help and regular self-therapy, he was able to develop fluency in most speech situations. Mohan still stammers off and on. “I think that’s because I’ve not really been sincere with my self-therapy exercises for the last 2 years. I’ve been busy at work and in any case, my stammering doesn’t bother me as much as it did when I was in college. I’ve come to terms with it”.
" Mu..mmm..mum..mummy! We wa.wa.wa..won the mmm..mmmatch!" Mrs. Sharma’s body tenses up whenever she hears her 10-year old son stammering. She becomes desperate herself, when Amit gets stuck on a word and struggles so hard to speak it out. His young-er brother speaks absolutely normally which makes it even more difficult for Amit. Mrs. Sharma: “Sometimes, a class-mate might tease him and that makes Amit feel as if he is abnormal. Last year he used to come home crying. He speaks quite well with everyone at home or with some of his friends. He has no difficulty when he sings or recites from memory. But when the teacher asks him to read in class, he breaks down into severe stammering. The problem is especially noticeable when he is excited or angry. Talking on the telephone is also difficult for Amit. From the time he was 4 years old and had started stammering, we had mentioned it to our pediatrician but he advised us not to worry because it would disappear when Amit reached 6 years of age. Now, 4 years later, the problem is in fact increasing. I feel helpless”.
In India where even today, stammering is considered funny; where the comedian in our films still stammers in search of cheap laughs, one of the primary goals of The Speech Foundation, India (www.speechfoundation.com) is to disseminate correct information about this baffling speech condition and suggest ways to overcome it.
Another one of its goals is to suggest how to react when they encounter a person who stammers.
Many of us might experience a feeling of embarrassment when we converse with person who stammers; some of us look away while others go ahead to complete their sentences for them. In talking with a person who stammers , the following hints might be of help:
Persons who stammer usually try and hide their speech problem from their listeners. This attempt at camouflage is counter-productive because it only acts as psychological ‘fuel’ for even more speech-blocks. If the person who stammers is open about his speech difficulty, he experiences lesser stress and is able to speak with greater control.
In the final analysis, stammering can be overcome if the sufferer seeks scientific, professional guidance and is ready to work towards achieving speech fluency through regular practice of therapeutic techniques. It certainly cannot disappear by ingesting some magic potent!
There are more than 45 million people in the world today who stammer and approximately 10 million live in India. Stammering is predominantly a ‘male’ condition (80% of all person who stammers are male) and it usually affects the first-born male child. A significant majority of person who stammers (65%) have a family history of the disorder; usually the father who stammers or speaks at a rapid rate. Nearly always, stammering starts before the child is 5 years of age. If left untreated, it peaks in severity around the age of 10 to 18 years and then begins to stabilize or fade away as the person who stammers grows older.
A person who stammers knows precisely what he wants to say but cannot, for the moment, say it because of an involuntary repetition, prolongation or cessation of the speech sound. Research suggests that the disorder might be caused due to a ‘neurological mistiming’ during the act of speech which leaves the person who stammers confused about when exactly to say the word he wants to say. Speaking is not merely the movement of the tongue but involves a fine coordination of both mental and physical processes. Like all other physical actions, the act of speech is the result of neuro-muscular coordination which involves the transmitting of electro-chemical messages from the brain to the appropriate muscle groups. For everyone of us (non-person who stammers s and person who stammers s alike), this neuro-muscular system sometimes trips and fails especially during moments of inadequate emotional control. Haven’t we all found the quality of our speech delivery changing with our feelings as we experience thrill, anger, fear, joy or other such strong emotions? For the person who stammers , this ‘tripping’ occurs much more frequently than it does for normal speakers. Whenever he faces what he perceives as a ‘feared’ situation, the person who stammers adopts a mind-set which triggers off spasms of speech-blocks. Such fears can also center around certain speech sounds or even certain people.
Actually, all person who stammers have periods of fluency when they are emotionally relaxed but revert back to dysfluent speech under stress. Answering the roll call in class, speaking on the telephone, talking to someone in authority, speaking in a group, attending a job interview, etc. are some such pressure situations which might cause an increase in stammering behavior.
One more of the unusual facts about stammering is that even the severest person who stammers can sing fluently without any speech blocks. This is because when we sing a song, we know exactly when to say the words and there is no ambiguity in our minds about this timing. In conversational speech however, we cannot bank on any such cues but as normally fluent speakers, most of us do not need these cues. However, without these cues, speech becomes disoriented, because of ‘wrongly tuned’ neurological speech-timing system. A person who stammers experiences difficulty in maintaining a smooth forward flow of words in the sentences he speaks. Frequently repeated, these instances of stammering arouse fear in the mind of the child who stammers. With growing years, these fears keep snowballing until the person who stammers begins to experience tremendous frustration, anxiety, shame, embarrassment, even guilt every time he opens his mouth to speak. He begins to recoil from speaking. The smirks on the faces of his listeners which his speech sometimes elicits do nothing to help his self confidence. In every other respect, except speaking ability, the person who stammers is a completely normal human being, as good or bad as the rest of us. In fact most persons who stammer are sensitive and intelligent people.
Scientists have yet to pin-point the exact cause of stammering. In ancient times, the condition was attributed to every possible source including sometimes the devil himself. One can only guess the varieties of tortures undergone by persons who stammer in their quest for speech fluency in those days. Even now, stammering has remained a confusing speech impediment for the sufferer as well as for those who have attempted to cure it through medicines.
Ajit Harisinghani, MS
Speech Therapist Pune, India