As a child in the 1970s, Katie was frustrated and embarrassed by her stuttering. She was teased by children in her preschool class, was bullied by some
of the boys and would cry every morning before she went
to school. She was very frustrated by the fact that while she
was a competent child in all other aspects of her life, she got
“stuck” on her words and struggled to get them out. She did not
understand why she could not talk and other children could.
That began to change when her parents took her to see
psychologist Ronald L. Webster, PhD, founder and president of
Hollins Communications Research Institute (HCRI), a nonprofit
center that specializes in stuttering treatment methods and
research. By participating in an intensive 19-day behavioral
therapy program, Katie basically learned how to talk all over again.
She mastered how to produce the correct oral positions for the 44
basic sounds used in American English and the transitional speech
gestures into a large, representative set of syllables involving sound
combinations typical for the language. In addition, she learned
how to control her voice amplitude patterns — allowing for fluent
speech — and how to breathe properly as she spoke.
Fast forward to the late 1990s when her own young daughter
began to stutter, and Katie was able to teach her how to speak
fluently using the skills she had learned as a child. (Webster has
just published a children’s book based on the true story of this
patient, whose named has been changed, “Katie: The Little Girl
Who Stuttered and Then Learned to Talk Fluently.”)
Katie and her daughter are among the roughly 1 percent of
the world’s population who stutter, some 3 million people in
the United States alone. The disorder is about four times more
common in males than females.
Most children who stutter experience spontaneous
recovery on their own by age 8. But for those whose stuttering
persists beyond age 8, it’s likely to last through adolescence
and beyond unless they get treatment.
Most people who stutter are treated by speech therapists in
60-minute sessions, usually once or twice a week, but research
by Webster and other psychologists has also led to evidence-based treatments that can help stutterers in as little as 12 days.
Etiology and co-occurring disorders
There are large individual differences in which particular
sounds people will stutter on, says Webster. In general,
stutterers will stutter on initial sounds in the first words
spoken in a phrase or sentence, but some stutterers always
have trouble with the first sound in their names. Others will
have trouble with “plosive” consonants — such as p, b, d, t, g
and k — for a while, then will have trouble with a different
set of sounds. Some will have trouble with a simple word,
such as “I.”
The exact cause of stuttering remains unclear. Some research
suggests that stuttering may have a genetic basis, says Gerald
Maguire, MD, a professor at the University of California,