| Annett Stein |
Berlin (dpa) – It’s a common reaction: moving the gaze in embarrassment somewhere else when confronted with someone who stutters.
Stutterers are used to such a reaction in their daily lives. They aren’t happy about it.
“Some people treat stutterers as though they were mentally deficient, others react by laughing, or even by turning aggressive,” says Alexander Wolff von Gudenberg, head of a speech therapy institute in the town of Caldo, near Kassel, Germany.
Psychologist Johannes von Trilling says that most people know very little about the speech dysfunction.
“Stuttering seems to many to be a matter of curiosity, even something to laugh about,” he writes in his book “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy of Stuttering”.
It may be that the Oscar award-winning film The King’s Speech, about King George VI of Britain, triggered some public awareness for a brief time, Trilling says, “but there still is a big deficit about what people know about stuttering.”
One reason, according to Martin Sommer, chairman of BVSS, a German self-help association for stutterers, is that stutterers themselves rarely speak up about their situation and needs. They tend to withdraw completely and minimise contact with others.
Even successful actors have had a hard time outing themselves as stutterers, Sommer notes.
Marilyn Monroe stuttered, and so did Bruce Willis as a child.
Stutterers are no worse off than others in finding the right words while speaking. But what is impaired is the ability to adequately pronounce the words they choose. Then come interruptions of three kinds – repetition, stretching a word out or total blockages.
Stuttering is most common in children, Sommer says, with latest data putting the figure at 11 per cent.
In many cases, the stuttering vanishes on its own or through therapy.
Only about one per cent of adults stutter, with 80 per cent of these being males. For them, the affliction remains a life-long problem.
“Spontaneous healing after puberty is extremely rare,” he says.
But even with therapy, stuttering can usually only be reduced but not completely eliminated. There are two main streams of treatment.
One is called Fluency Shaping, the other Stuttering Modification.
In the former, the stutterers practice a soft-sounding way of speaking aimed at better control. In the latter, the normal flow of speech is maintained, but special techniques are used to try to master and overcome the speech blockages.
Von Gudenberg, who also heads Kassel Stuttering Therapy (KST), one of Germany’s leading speech therapy institutes, says that over the past few decades no totally new therapies have emerged. Technical developments in recent years however have made possible a new variation – on-line therapy.
“In this way we can also reach people who otherwise cannot or will not undergo therapy,” he said.
One target group for the online variant is the young. KST is now working on a pilot project offering such on-line therapy sessions in German.
Whether the tele-therapy really works still must be shown, Sommer cautions. What is vital for the long-term success of treatment is that much more than fluent speech is achieved. “Behavioural therapy can clearly improve the overall results,” he argues. Because they as children suffered from being rejected and stigmatised, many stutterers have developed exaggerated fears, von Trilling wrote in his book.
About half of stutterers have social anxiety problems. Not only do they avoid personal contacts with others, but they have often chosen their occupation purely because it might not require much talking.
There is a great yearning for some kind of miracle cure, one that is a simple alternative to the therapies that now require stamina and motivation to go through with.
“There are always people out there who make completely inappropriate promises of healing,” Sommer warns.
Some simple changes in the manner of speech can help to quickly reduce stuttering and so give the short-term appearance of a healing.
But the methods turn out in most cases to be inadequate for everyday needs.
New approaches might one day evolve from learning about the exact root causes of stuttering, but even then, a lot remains unclear.