Jonah Peters is a small boy with a sizable imagination. From the moment the 4 1/2-year-old awakes until his bedtime, he’s telling and acting out stories, says his mother Lindsey Skeen. “He’ll be Bob the Builder for a while, then Spiderman and then someone else. He gets really involved in a story and becomes all these characters.” Yet the fact that Jonah can express himself with a certain ease brings great pleasure to his family because just a year ago, this young boy had a significant problem with his speech.
When Jonah was about 2 1/2 years old and beginning to form sentences, he started stuttering. He would repeat words and struggle to get the sentences out. Skeen decided to do some research online but the advice she read said children will outgrow the problem.
As the stuttering got worse, Skeen spoke with the family’s doctor, who suggested Jonah see a speech therapist. But when Skeen called the Children’s Hospital, she was told there was a two year waiting list. Then, a mother at a gym class told Skeen about the Montreal Fluency Centre, a not-for-profit association that helps children with speech and language difficulties.
Within a week of phoning, Jonah had been seen and assessed at the centre, with treatment following soon after. For the past year, Jonah and his mother have met with one of the centre’s speech-language pathologists, Danra Kazenski, once every two weeks. Through games and fun activities, Jonah is well on his way to speaking without stuttering. In fact, he’s about to “graduate” from the program.
While the Fluency Centre helps children with many kinds of speech problems, it has developed a specialty in the treatment of stuttering, a speech disorder that occurs when the normal flow of speech is disrupted by the inability to start a word or by repetition or prolongation of sounds. The majority of children affected are between the ages of 2 and 6, and boys are three times more likely to develop the condition.
Effective treatment available
Thanks to the centre’s founder and Executive Director Dr. Rosalee Shenker, children can receive effective treatment for stuttering. Ten years ago, she began using the Lidcombe approach, which was developed by Dr. Mark Onslow, the director of the Australian Stuttering Research Centre at the University of Sydney. This approach focuses on teaching parents to notice and gently comment on their child’s speech when they are at home. Parents learn how to give this feedback during visits with a speech pathologist.
Parents are trained to praise their children when they speak without a stutter, to occasionally correct a stutter using simple language and a soft-spoken tone, and to measure improvement in a child’s fluency at home. “It makes a lot of sense to make parents part of the solution because one hour of therapy a week is not effective for a problem that persists outside the clinic for the rest of the week,” Shenker said.
Skeen agrees. During the day, she will play games with Jonah that require him to talk. Together, they work on making his speech smooth and avoiding what they call “bumpy” words. “It makes me feel proud that we’re working together on this,” she says.
When Jonah’s speaking is smooth, his mother will praise him and will sometimes offer a small reward like a sticker. In fact, the Lidcombe approach instructs parents to praise correct speech 10 times for every one time they correct stuttering. “Unfortunately, we have a normal tendency to point out what is wrong with a child’s behaviour more than we praise,” Shenker said.
Another feature of the Lidcombe approach is its emphasis on early intervention. In the past, it was believed that if parents ignored stuttering, children would outgrow it. And if they didn’t, the condition should be treated only when it got really bad.
Supporters of the Lidcombe program believe in early intervention and clinical research has shown this program to be effective in eliminating stuttering or reducing stuttering to near zero levels in children after as few as 12 hours of therapy. Studies are being done to look at the long-term effectiveness of the treatment, with current research suggesting children remain stutter free for at least eight years.
Initially the Australian researchers who developed the program came to Montreal to train Shenker and other speech pathologists in this method. Shenker was praised by Lidcombe founder Onslow in a letter he wrote after one such training program.
“Through your centre, I found that you are providing leadership in stuttering treatment for the entire continent; and that includes the United States of America,” he wrote. “The Fluency Centre is the only site on the continent that is providing an example to clinicians of how to use scientific principles to treat stuttering.”
In 2001, the Montreal Fluency Centre became the North American Training Centre for the Lidcombe Program. Since that time, more 5000 speech- language pathologists have been trained in this method in Canada and North America.
Myths about stuttering
Myth Stuttering is a normal part of children’s speech development.
Fact Stuttering is a speech disorder and is not part of normal speech and language development.
Myth All children grow out of stuttering.
Fact Some will stop stuttering without therapy. Some will continue to stutter and will require professional help. At present we are unable to tell whether a child will recover without help. Remember that adults who stutter all began when they were very young.
Myth Stuttering is caused by the way parents bring up their children.
Fact Parents are the best people to help their children recover from stuttering. It is a physical condition with genetic involvement.
Myth Children stutter because they are nervous and shy.
Fact Children who stutter are just like other children, except that they sometimes have trouble talking.
Myth I should finish a person’s sentence if they are stuttering.
Fact The best way to help someone who stutters is to wait for them to finish what they have to say and to treat them like everyone else.
Myth I should tell a person stuttering to slow down.
Fact The person is struggling to talk as it is, and going slower may only prolong their difficulty. Let them speak at their own speed.
The Montreal Fluency Centre – www.montrealfluency.com
For more information, call (514) 489-4320
The Australian Stuttering Research Centre – www.fhs.usyd.edu.au/asrc/