Colin Firth stuttered his way to an Oscar this year and brought stammering into the spotlight. Though there is no official data available for India, audiologists and speech therapists practising in the country believe roughly one in 100 people have a speech problem.
“A stammer can develop at any age, but in 95 per cent of the cases, it is first noticeable by the age of four,” said Dr Mani Bansal, speech therapist at Max Hospital in Saket, south Delhi.
A definite cause is not known, but genes play a role. A study of 44 families in Pakistan — where marriage within families leads to a high incidence of genetic disorders — linked stuttering to a mutation in a gene called GNPTAB. The mutation has been found in many stammerers in Pakistan and India, reported the Journal of Human Genetics in January. Previous studies have linked stammering to two mutations in two genes, GNPTG and NAGPA.
“Anxiety and low-self esteem aggravate the disorder, and if treatment is too late, it may result in the child becoming socially withdrawn,” said Dr Rajesh Sagar, associate professor, department of psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
“The earlier you detect it, the easier it is to treat. It is best treated before the age of five years, before children start school, where teasing by peers can undermine their confidence. A trauma such as merciless ragging in college, can cause an adult to develop a stammer,” said Dr Sagar.
Ashutosh Bhardwaj, 22, who recently bagged a job with Infosys after doing his B. Tech in Computer Science from the University of Delhi, cannot believe his luck. “He had mild speech impediment since childhood, but it worsened after he failed to qualify in any of the engineering entrance examinations after Class 12,” says his father S N Bhardwaj, an engineer with New Delhi Municipal Council.
After speech therapy sessions, Bhardwaj is as fluent as anyone else. “Whenever I spoke aloud, people would laugh, which wrecked my confidence.,” says Ashutosh.
Apart from the psychological factors, structural and hearing loss also impact speech. “Faults in the movement of the tongue, lip structure and muscles of the mouth may result in a stammer. That’s why speech problems are treated by a team with an ENT specialist, speech therapist and audiologist,” said Dr Amit Kishore, ENT surgeon, Apollo Hospital.
If the impediment is mild and does not happen frequently enough to distract the listener, the problem can be handled with psychological counselling. A speech therapy course is needed if the problem is acute.
In both the cases, however, one needs to visit a therapist for guidance. During psychological counseling, parents and teachers have to be supportive and extremely patient. “They should not let the child feel that there is something wrong with his or her speech pattern. They should speak slowly and let the child complete the sentence on his or her own, rather than getting impatient,” said Dr Bansal.
In most cases, people seek help between the ages of 8 and 12, when the child starts school and has problems communicating with his or her peers. By then, the child usually becomes quiet and withdrawn.
Of late, with more emphasis being given to communication skills, parents are not taking any chances. “Things have changed over the last three years. Earlier, I hardly got any young children in the speech clinic, now I see three to four children in a week with a stammer,” said Dr Bansal.
And with the treatment getting a nudge from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences giving it the attention it needed, more people will seek a cure from this social nightmare.