What’s the difference between a stutter and a stammer?
By Emily Woodhouse
Specialist Speech & Language Therapist at Mable Therapy
“What’s the difference between a stammer and a stutter?”
“I think my child has a stammer? Is it a stutter?”
“Will they always speak this way? How can I help my child?”
As a speech and language therapist, I am often asked these questions when it comes to how a child speaks. Stammering and stuttering are relatively common speech disorders, which are neurological in nature and create moments of dysfluency such as: repeating words, stretching sounds or not being able to produce some sounds or words at all.
In fact, around 8% of children (that’s 1 in 12!) will experience dysfluent speech at some point, according to research (Yairi E. & Ambrose N. 2013. ‘Epidemiology of stuttering: 21st century advances’. Journal of Fluency Disorders 38 66-87). The research also noted that 1% of the adult population have dysfluent speech. However, interestingly a more recent YouGov poll suggested this could actually be as high as 3%!
How Can We Support Children with Speech Disorders?
With these figures in mind, it is crucial that we understand what stammering and stuttering are and how we can support children with these speech disorders:
More often than not, these types of dysfluencies emerge later in life and are less common. They are often the result of disease or injury to the brain and/or spinal cord. Some causes include: stroke, tumours, meningitis and Parkinsons. They can also be related to drugs, medicine and emotional trauma.
Most people recall that their stammer or stutter started when they were young children, usually around the ages of 2-5 years. Developmentally, this is the period children often experience a burst in language skills as they’re learning lots of new vocabulary. This burst can create a mismatch between the child’s language and motor planning skills. As children mature, their motor speech skills increase and as a result the stammering and stuttering behaviours usually reduce.
But What If They Don’t?
Don’t panic! There are some families who will require additional input from a specialist speech and language therapist to help their child with their stammer moments of dysfluencies. With the right support and strategies in place, these children will become happy, confident and effective communicators.
So, Will They Stammer Forever?
The long-term prognosis of a stammer can be difficult to identify. Although there are several factors which can increase a person’s likelihood of having dysfluent speech, the severity and long term outcome can be difficult to predict.
Some dysfluent behaviours are classed as being ‘typical’ which means that the dysfluencies are less likely to continue into adulthood. For example:
- Repeating phrases/ multsyllabic words, e.g. “I want to… I want to go to the park because because it’s fun!”
- Using fillers, e.g. umm
- Showing no signs of frustration or additional tension
- No family history
- Present for less than 6 months
On the flip-side, there are some indicators of persistent dysfluency, which a speech therapist would consider during a child’s first session:
- Has your child’s stammer or stutter been present for over 6 months?
- Do they repeat single sounds / syllables? E.g. C-c-can I have a-a drink
- Do they stretch sounds? E.g. I’m ssssorry
- Do their sounds get stuck? Perhaps their mouth is ready to say the word but they physically cannot get it out
- Do they display secondary behaviours when they talk? E.g tapping, blinking, coughing, scrunching their face
- Are they aware/frustrated by their dysfluencies?
- Are they avoiding words / social situations?
- Has anyone else in the family ever experienced a stammer or stutter?
- Does your child have other speech and language needs?
If you find yourself answering, yes, yes, yes then please do contact a speech and language therapist. Even if you’re unsure, a chat with a speech and language therapist may help answer any queries or concerns you have. A speech and language therapist will also take into consideration the sex of your child as well as how old they were when they first began to stammer. Why? This is because girls are more likely to ‘outgrow’ their stammer, and a stammer which starts before 3 and half years is also more likely to resolve naturally.
Depending on your child’s age, presentation and awareness, the therapist may suggest more indirect work, focusing on supporting parents and providing them with strategies and techniques to support their child’s talking. Alternatively, direct work may be appropriate and again, depending on the child, this could be 1:1 or group work.
What’s the Difference Between a Stammer and a Stutter?
You may have noticed by now, that the terms ‘stammer’ and ‘stutter’ are synonymous. Simply put, they both refer to the moments of dysfluency in a person’s speech and are often used interchangeably. In the UK, ‘stammer’ is the most common term used.
Here are 5 tips to help support your child:
Remember, no one has fluent speech 100% of the time and this expectation is not achievable. Ultimately, in my view, children with stammers should be supported to feel comfortable and confident. They should know that there is nothing ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’ about having a stammer.