Stuttering or stammering (dysfluency) is a common disorder and can have a major impact on the life and wellbeing of many people. The term stutter and stammer will may be used interchangeably in this section, but means the same thing.
Dysfluency is a speech disorder in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables or words, and involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which the dysfluent person is unable to produce sounds. Dysfluency in adulthood is something that has usually been present since the individual was a young child, but can present later in life as the result of a head injury or neurological event.
When the dysfluency remains unresolved through to adulthood it can cause individuals to be very embarrassed and self aware and affect their career progression and relationships. Many stammerers claim that the disorder has affected their lives making them avoid many social situations and affecting their confidence.
There are a number of different types of treatment, and a few treatments that claim to be “miracle cures”. For some people these treatments work, but sometimes only temporarily. Many experts in this field believe that unless you tackle underlying psychological issues of dysfluency you will not be able to address the problem thoroughly and make lasting changes.
What causes adult stammering / stuttering?
Brain scans have found interesting differences in brain activity between stammerers and non-stammerers. Stammerers showed more activity in their right hemispheres during speech. The right hemisphere is more associated with emotions, so it could be that the fear of speaking is causing anxiety which is causing the right hemisphere to become more involved. However, it could be that the left hemisphere is not functioning properly and the right hemisphere is trying to take on work that it is unsuited for.
Other brain scan data shows physiological differences in the brain, with different levels of activity between certain brain mechanisms when comparing stammerers and non-stammerers. However, this may just have been the way the dysfluent person’s brain has developed through childhood because of the stammerer. Whatever the cause, most dysfluent individuals have to live with their stammer and the anxiety and stress that they feel when they communicate with other people. The anxiety and stress itself, can often make the stammer worse.
To try and put yourself in the shoes of someone who stammers, imagine you have a stammer of which you are very aware. You are queuing in the post office, wanting to post a parcel to France and you want to buy some stamps. As you queue you feel nervous, you don’t want to annoy the post office clerk and you don’t want hold up the line behind you. You start to get increasingly nervous, and so you start to silently rehearse what you want to say to the clerk. The tension builds as you get closer to the front of the queue and you keep silently rehearsing what you want to say. When you get to the front of the queue you are so uptight you cannot remember what you rehearsed, your speech gets stuck, you struggle to say what you want to say. You are feeling more tense and embarrassed. Then the clerk asks you how many stamps you need. You had not rehearsed that answer so you blurt out “ten”. You only wanted six stamps but you know that sometimes you have more difficulty with words beginning with “s”.
If this is how someone feels when they go to the post office, imagine what it must be like to go to work, to go shopping, to catch a train, and to meet unfamiliar people every day.
There are a few other causes of adult dysfluency:
Neurogenic stuttering – following a strokes or head injury, stutter-like symptoms can present in adults. Neurogenic stuttering presents with repetitions, prolongations, and blocks.
Psychogenic stuttering – this rare condition often begins suddenly following an event causing extreme psychological stress. It is characterised by repetition of initial or stressed syllables.
Spastic dysphonia – this presents with a repeated blockage of the larynx and the onset is generally in middle age.
These other causes of dysfluency are relatively rare and sometimes do not have the same emotional impact on the individual. If you have concerns about a stammer or stutter, visit a qualified speech therapist /pathologist for assessment and speech therapy.
In Dysfluency Treatment Section, we discuss some of the options available to dysfluent adults. Click here to go the treatment section.
For more information about communication difficulties, and ideas and strategies to help communication, see our Resources.
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