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Stuttering May Not Cause Emotional Woes in Kids

Research also suggests many of these children actually have advanced language skills

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Aug. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Preschoolers who stutter typically do not suffer emotional or social problems because of it, and even tend to have stronger language skills than their peers, a new study suggests.

Researchers said the findings offer reassurance to parents, but also stressed that the study looked at averages. So, some young children who stutter may have emotional difficulties, such as being shy or withdrawn.

"Speech pathologists who treat young children who stutter certainly see evidence of those behaviors," said lead researcher Sheena Reilly, of the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Victoria, Australia.

But when you look at young kids in the wider community, such negative effects may not be the "norm" -- at least in the short term, Reilly's team reports online Aug. 26 and in the September print issue of Pediatrics.

The study included 1,619 children from Melbourne, Australia, who were followed starting in infancy. By age 4 years, 11 percent had developed stuttering. Based on standard questionnaires given to the parents, those children were faring as well as their peers when it came to emotional and social development.

What's more, they had higher average scores on measures of vocabulary and other language skills.

That finding is not surprising, according to a speech-language pathologist who was not involved in the study.

There is evidence that children with stuttering may be "linguistically precocious," said Heather Grossman, clinical director of the American Institute for Stuttering in New York.

The theory is that for some preschoolers, the brain's language capacity is more developed than the "motor system" that allows them to physically speak. "In other words, the motor system cannot keep up with the cognitive system," Grossman said. And that may lead to stuttering.

Stuttering is most common in children aged 2 to 5, and it usually clears up; only 1 percent or less of adults continue to stutter, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The question is, which kids need speech therapy to help them get past the issue?

"Many cases of stuttering onset are mild, and we recommend 'watchful waiting' for a year as a reasonable approach," Reilly said.

However, it's likely to take more than a year, based on her team's findings. Of the 142 preschoolers who developed stuttering, only 6 percent saw it go away within a year.

Reilly said researchers still need to figure out how long stuttering "recovery" typically takes.

There are certain factors that experts have found to be important: Girls, for instance, are more likely than boys to outgrow it on their own, Grossman said. Once kids get to the ages of 6 or 7, the number of boys who stutter is a few times higher than the number of girls -- for reasons that are unclear.

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