HEALTHY LIVING: Talking through stammering problems

Speech Therapist Kete Williams working with one of her clients at Union road
Speech Therapist Kete Williams working with one of her clients at Union road
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MOST people don’t give speaking out loud a second thought - but for others, saying the simplest words can become immensely difficult as they struggle with a stammer.

Stammering affects one person in every 100 in the UK, and in some cases can be a source of immense anxiety, with sufferers attempting to avoid particular phrases or stressful situations.

Today is International Stammering Awareness Day, intended to draw attention to the condition - and in Sheffield, the city’s dedicated NHS speech and language service is encouraging stammerers to get help controlling their problems.

Specialist speech and language therapist Kate Williams has been working with stammerers for more than 20 years, and said she finds each patient is affected differently by their speech difficulties.

“There are themes that come through, but the impact that a stammer has on an individual is very varied,” said Kate, who is based at Flockton House in Brincliffe.

“It can be a hidden difficulty, because to all intents and purposes we all look the same, but only when a person speaks does a person who stammers experience some difficulty.”

The term ‘stammering’ covers a wide range of speech behaviours, including getting blocked or stuck on certain words and sounds. Therapists approach it primarily as a speech problem, as well as a problem of the negative feelings associated with the act of speaking.

Kate said stammering usually becomes apparent in childhood, from the ages of two-and-a-half to five years.

“It’s not known really what the causes of stammering are. It’s a combination of factors. We know that, for example, genetics play a part - there might be someone in the family who stammers themselves. And we do know there are some brain imaging studies that show there are differences between the brain activity in people who stammer, compared to fluent speakers.

“But those are really predisposition factors. It means that, as a therapist, you’re trying to tease out the features that might be pointers to the likelihood of stammering persistently.”

Kate added: “We try and help people feel less concerned about their stammering, so they’re able to say what they want to say, when they want to say it, using the words they want to use.

“In terms of techniques, there are various things we can do. For example, with one person, they might talk quite quickly and that might be a contributing factor to their stammering behaviour, so we’ll work with that person to slow their talking down.

“For others, it might be that they actually need very specific techniques to deal with the moment of stammering. People can be quite fluent normally, then come across a word they hit and get stuck on. Then again, some people have very little idea of the sounds or words they might struggle with - others can say very clearly ‘It’s always this sound’.

“While we work with individuals, we also work with groups of children, teenagers and adults.”

Kate said some people can even find saying their own name or address particularly difficult, adding: “Obviously for those specific bits of information, you can’t avoid the words.”

Public speaking, telephone calls, presentations, job interviews and - for youngsters - school registration time can all prove minefields for stammerers, Kate said.

“For all of us, we have talking situations where we’re confident, and ones that might stretch us a little bit or send us into a panic. But there are people who stammer who are air traffic controllers, lawyers and teachers. In spite of a stammer you can still do the things you want to do.”

The speech and language service works on an open referral system. The majority of children are sent for therapy by their school, parents or GP, while adults can seek treatment themselves.

Kate said: “We often wonder why, at a particular moment in time, people seek help. Sometimes it can be that someone has just had enough of struggling with, or changing, words. They feel the stammer is a bigger part of their life than it should be, therefore they want therapy.

“For others it might be a specific event. They might want to go for a promotion with work and feel their communication skills might be holding them back, or have a speech at their daughter’s wedding and want to do that.”

She said sufferers sometimes do not seek treatment as they don’t class themselves as having a stammer.

“They might think ‘I’m the sort of person that gets tangled up with my talking’,” she added.

“I meet some very interesting people, I like the stories people have. I feel I’m very privileged to work with people who are finding communication difficult, and together we can help make that an easier process for them.”