The majority of preschool children who stutter will grow out of it, but a wait-and-see approach can harm those who ultimately don't recover and set them back academically and socially, say Purdue University speech experts.
"The recovery rate is high, about 50 percent for 4- and 5-year olds who stutter, and so it is often suggested to wait and see, but that is not always the best approach. Early intervention is critical for those children who will not grow out of stuttering," says Bridget Walsh, a research scientist and speech-language pathologist with the Purdue Stuttering Project. "We want children to be successful communicators from the start. The longer a child stutters maladaptive speech patterns may become more ingrained and less amenable to treatment. For some children, stuttering can become a severe lifelong disability."
Parents who have any concerns about whether a child stutters should ask for a referral or contact a speech-language pathologist for an evaluation, say Walsh and Barbara Brown, a research associate and speech-language pathologist for the Purdue Stuttering Project.
"It is not unusual for 2- to 3-year olds to be disfluent, but if children older than 3 begin to stutter, or if the child has been stuttering for 6 months or more parents should seek an evaluation. When stuttering starts later, children are less likely to grow out of it," Brown says. "Therapy, both direct and indirect, can help reduce stuttering severity because the brain is still undergoing developmental changes and is adaptive. Therapy services also can help young children deal with fears and frustrations that affect their self-esteem and interactions with their peers."
For example, children and families can learn techniques to promote fluency, and parents can modify the way they interact with their child.
Five percent of 4- and 5-year olds stutter, and there is currently no way to tell which children will recover and which will persist, but the Purdue Stuttering Project scientists are researching behavioral and physiological factors that may help predict which children are at greatest risk for persistence in stuttering. The goal is to develop a test battery that speech-language pathologists can administer to identify those children who may benefit the most from early treatment. The project is led by Anne Smith, a distinguished professor of speech, language and hearing sciences, and Christine Weber-Fox, a professor of speech, language and hearing sciences and a cognitive neuroscientist. The researchers, from the Department of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences, recently received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, and they are currently recruiting 4- and 5-year-old children who stutter. More information is available at http://www.purdue.edu/stutteringproject/