Question: What do Michael Palin, Ed Balls and Colin Firth have in common?
Answer: They are all Vice Presidents of the charity, Action for Stammering Children

AND… they have all been affected personally by stammering – Michael’s character, Ken, in “A Fish Called Wanda” was based on his own father, who stammered; Ed Balls has lived his whole life with a stammer; and Colin Firth brought the plight of people who stammer to the attention of millions with his portrayal of King George VI in “The King’s Speech.”

Stammering, dysfluency or stuttering as it is known in the US, is a highly complicated problem that is still not fully understood. Approximately 8% of children will stammer at some point in their life, with 1% continuing this into adulthood. This means that approximately 150,000 children and young people across the UK have a stammer, with boys outnumbering girls 4:1. October 22nd each year is designated International Stammering Awareness Day and exists to highlight the problems and to raise awareness of the condition. Stammering associations, support groups, Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs) and individuals use the day to organise events, share stories and raise funds. We have previously published an article on things that you can do in your settings to help children who stammer and you can find the article here so this article will focus more on the role and importance of Speech and Language Therapy in stammering, but also in other speech and language disorders.

Nearly 20% of the population may experience communication difficulties at some point in their lives and 7% of children aged 5, have specific speech and language impairment and it is the most common special educational need in children aged 4 – 11. Some settings and educational establishments are lucky enough to have specialist units set up to help children, others may have visiting professionals on an ‘as-needed’ basis, but nursery staff and educationalists alike need to have an awareness of speech and language difficulties so that timely interventions can be identified and accessed. In some socially deprived areas of the country, 50% or more of the reception intake may have impoverished speech, language and communication skills, affecting their ability to access the curriculum and leading to gaps in their learning widening as they get older. Eighty percent of children with emotional and behavioural disorders have significant language deficits.

There are generally 4 areas of speech and language communication needs to look out for:

Speech – which includes where speech is difficult to understand or a child might have difficulties in making certain sounds or using intonation to add to the meaning of what is being said.

Language – this can include problems finding the right words, or linking words to form sentences, limited vocabulary for emotions, thoughts or feelings, or misunderstanding idioms or the meaning of more complex sentences.

Social communication – this category includes people who give limited eye contact and have difficulty in starting or ending conversations. They can also find it difficult to respond to feedback or the body language/facial expressions of another person, so may misinterpret what is said or really meant.

Dysfluency/stammering – stammering is characterised outwardly by a person repeating certain syllables or letters, prolongation of pauses and the blocking of sounds, but these core behaviours are often accompanied by more inwardly-felt characteristics such as feelings of frustration, isolation and embarrassment. These are often exacerbated by others’ impatience, teasing and/or bullying which can make the child’s life difficult, affecting their mental health, confidence and resilience.

Many common speech, language and communication problems are typically seen initially between the ages of 2 and 5 years, at the time when children’s language skills are developing. Stammering may also start when there are rapid developments in their mental processes and physical skills too. For some people, stammering develops slowly and comes on over a number of years, whereas for others it can almost seem to appear overnight for no apparent reason. For all though, it can lead to a worrying time for both the child and the family. Many people find that their stammering comes and goes in stages, which can add to the frustrations.

Social communication problems can become worse as a child gets older if they don’t get help to ‘close the gap’, helping them to access the curriculum of their peers and understand the world around them.

What is Speech and Language Therapy?

Speech and Language Therapists (SLTs)provide children (and adults who have difficulties with communication, or with eating, drinking and swallowing such as stroke victims), with support and care. There are about 12,000 practicing SLTs in the UK with the majority working within the NHS, although with an increase in demand for services, has come an increase in people working for charities and in individual practices.

SLTs work not only with the children or adults affected, but with their families, carers, educational establishments and the wider workforce to assess needs and plan personalised therapy programmes. They can work with adults as well as children, especially after strokes which can affect a person’s speech or ability to swallow.

Following an initial assessment to determine need, the SLT will usually either:

  • Discharge the child giving advice
  • Give an onward referral to other specialist services
  • Offer advice and review progress within an agreed timeframe
  • Offer workshop sessions for parents/other professionals within the child’s sphere
  • Recommend one-to-one or group therapy

Many children grow out of conditions such as stammering, but not all. Identifying and addressing these issues at an early stage is important to give everyone the best possible chance of success.

How to contact a SLT

If you are concerned about the speech or language development of a child, and think they should see a SLT, then if they are within your setting, you could discuss your observations with the parents and advise them of the SLT service which is available, asking them to either contact their GP, district nurse or health visitor. As nursery professionals, you can also put in a referral directly with their legal guardian’s consent. If the concern is for yourself, you can put in a referral to the service yourself and do not need to wait for someone else to refer you. Call your local NHS number and ask about the local speech and language services.

For more information, see:
Action for stammering children
Stamma.org
Royal college of speech and language therapists
NHS/stammering site

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