Stuttering, also called stammering, is an involuntary disorder that causes interruptions in a person’s speech. It can be characterised by repetitions (g-g-give/wa-wa-wa-want), drawing out of sounds (mmmusic), and abnormal hesitations or pauses before a word, known as blocks (——bags/I——I like bags).
A silent block is probably less easy for listeners to identify than a stutter, as those with this type of speech impediment can more easily create strategies to disguise their disfluency. This might include filling any silences with other words to buy time until they are able to say the word they want, or simply replacing the word with another that carries a similar meaning. Often, people with a speech block will use sounds such as ”hmmm” or “uhhh” between words to fill in the gap.
Stuttering is beyond a persons’ control and the frequency of stuttering can vary from word to word, with random periods of fluency. The same person can sound completely fluent on one occasion but stutter on another depending on the circumstance or environment.
As well as disrupting speech, severe stuttering can lead to physical symptoms such as eye blinks, looking away, leg shaking, grimaces and the tensing of facial muscles when someone is struggling to get a word out.
It is important to also highlight that disfluency is not a disease, an illness, or a mental disability. It also does not reflect a persons’ intellectual capacity. In fact, many professionals who stutter have incredibly successful careers. Some of the most famous people who either stuttered in early childhood or still stuttered as adults include politicians Winston Churchill and current US President Joe Biden, actors Emily Blunt, Marilyn Monroe and Nicole Kidman, as well as Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson and Ed Sheeran, naturalist Charles Darwin, cartoonist Jim Davis, journalist Byron Pitts, businessman Malcolm Fraser and sportsman Tiger Woods. Perhaps most famous of all was King George VI of Great Britain. The Oscar winning film The King’s Speech tells the story of his struggle with a speech impediment.
Stuttering affects over 70 million people worldwide from all social classes, cultures and ethnic groups. It affects around four times as many men as women, a gender discrepancy that is not fully understood. Women are also more likely to spontaneously grow out of stuttering than men.
No one really knows the precise causes of this complex disorder. However, researchers believe stuttering to be a neurological condition with a genetic pre-disposition as stuttering often runs in families. Family dynamics can also play a role in the development of a stutter.
Because so little is understood about its causes, there is no specific cure for it and no medication to treat stuttering. A supportive family and speech-language therapy remain the main treatment options for children and adults who stutter.
Cluttering vs Stuttering
Some people confuse cluttering with stuttering, thus, let’s explain a bit better the different between the two.
What is cluttering?
Cluttering is complex and probably one of the most overlooked speech disorders. It affects a person’s ability to speak in a clear and concise way. People who clutter can struggle with various aspects of their speech, including rate, articulation, and language formation, making it hard for listeners to understand everything they are saying. People who clutter can sometimes present symptoms of ADHD, learning disabilities, or language and articulation disorder, which is not the case for people who stutter.
In addition to attention deficits, people who clutter make excessive breaks in the normal flow of speech as well as an abnormally rapid or irregular speech rate. Because stuttering and cluttering are closely related fluency disorders, the public and professionals alike tend to confuse the two and misdiagnose cluttering as stuttering. A person who clutters can also stutter; however, this is not always the case.
Cluttering is characterised by disorganised speech planning, while those who stutter normally know exactly what they want to say but are temporally unable to do so. Another key difference is that people who stutter normally present repetitions, prolongations, or blocks, while those with cluttering tend to show interjections that work as filler words such as “um” or “uh”, present phrase repetitions, and revisions in their speech. Moreover, most people who clutter do not present secondary behaviour such as physical struggles when speaking.
To identify cluttering, listen to a person’s non-stuttered speech and identify symptoms such as rapid speaking rate, omitting syllables or words, leaving words unfinished (for example, “forg” instead of “forget”), repeating words and phrases and unusual pauses.
Cluttering symptoms normally appear during preschool years and can persist into adulthood.
Treatment requires highly individualised therapy. Although treatment in adulthood does not guarantee complete recovery, people who clutter should seek a speech therapist as soon as possible in order to work on their communication fluency.
Unlike stuttering, a person who clutters often does not realise they have a speaking disorder until someone brings it to their attention. As a result, speech treatment can be delayed due to a lack of self-awareness.
Just like stuttering, the causes of cluttering are yet unknown.