ARGENTINA: Early Treatment Can Stop Stuttering in Children

  • by Marcela Valente (buenos aires)
  • Monday, February 28, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

Since the premier of the film -- which landed the Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best actor and best original screenplay Sunday -- clinics specialising in helping people with this speech disorder have received a flood of consultations, mainly from parents with children who stutter.

'Since the film began to be shown, we have explained on TV and radio that treatments exist to overcome stammering in nearly all children, and there has been an explosion of phone calls,' speech pathologist Julieta Castro with the Argentine Stuttering Association told IPS.

According to Castro, most of the people who call are parents who are worried because pediatricians have recommended that they wait -- the very opposite of what is advised by speech pathologists who work with people who stutter.

The movie, about King George VI's attempt to overcome his speech impediment, represented 'an opportunity to talk about and demystify the issue, so it will stop being a shameful symptom, and so people will understand that stammerers aren't stupid but are people who suffer because of their disorder.'

Consultations in clinics and hospitals in the province of Buenos Aires, which is home to one-third of Argentina's population of 40 million, increased 30 percent since the film began showing, according to the Association of Phonoaudiologists (speech pathologists).

The film brought unexpected publicity ahead of the World Congress for People who Stutter, which will draw experts and people affected by stammering from every continent to Buenos Aires in May.

Speech pathologist Claudia Díaz, head of training in the Argentine Stuttering Association, said 'with early intervention, in other words, before the age of five and a half, the symptom disappears.'

But pediatricians often 'are not informed, and downplay the problem,' she said. The treatments are quite new, there are few trained specialised speech pathologists, and they receive their training abroad, like Díaz, who studied on a scholarship in Australia.

'Developed countries have been working on providing information about the disorder and knocking down myths for 40 years,' she said. 'The most progress has been made in Australia, Canada and the United States. We only got started very recently.'

The work of the few speech pathologists specialising in stuttering 'is a laborious effort,' Díaz said. The specialists talk with the pediatricians of each child brought in for a consultation, to explain to the doctors how important it is to immediately refer the patient to an expert.

'Pediatricians give out bad advice on this issue. They believe that the little breaks in the flow of speech (called disfluency) are psychological and will go away on their own. But for some time now it has been known that this isn't true,' she said.

'It later becomes very difficult to live with this problem,' she added.

The disorder affects one to two percent of the global population and has different causes. It tends to run in families, and there are genetic factors causing abnormalities in the left side of the brain.

Stuttering is more frequent among males than females, and the speech disorder does not reflect the speaker's intelligence level.

In adulthood, when language acquisition is complete, symptoms become deep-rooted and are more difficult to control, although it is not impossible with training, specialists say.

'There is no definitive cure in adults, but people learn to compensate,' said Díaz, who cited the film directed by Tom Hooper, in which Firth plays Britain's King George VI (1895-1952), who had to get over his stuttering to face his obligations of state.

George VI was crowned when his older brother Edward VIII abdicated. The film portrays an intelligent, courageous man who is loving with his family and has leadership qualities, but who has to undergo treatment for his stuttering.

'The King's Speech' shows how big a challenge something so simple as talking on the radio -- at that time the most important mass medium -- was for a representative of a monarchy at a dramatic moment in history, the period between the two world wars.

Specialists say that once the symptoms take root, psychological difficulties caused by living with the disorder emerge, and this aggravate the situation, especially if the person feels inhibited about talking to people and speaking in public.

In Argentina, stuttering affects some 500,000 people, although that number could rise now that awareness about the problem is growing, Díaz said.

Many symptoms in childhood go unnoticed, she added.

Children of three or four years of age who close their eyes to force out a syllable or who repeat a syllable several times, who push their hands forward to accompany their words or otherwise make an effort to express themselves could suffer from this speech impairment, she said.

'There are as many symptoms as affected people,' and the variety is even broader among children, she said. That means signs are sometimes ignored, when early intervention is vital.

Access to treatment is not a simple question, because private health insurers do not cover the necessary six months of treatment, and there are few professionals in public hospitals.

'You can count on one hand the number of specialised phonoaudiologists in this country, which is why the Association is offering training,' Díaz said. 'In public hospitals, people have to wait at least two months for an appointment, and the worst thing you can do for this problem is wait.'

Among the most common misconceptions is that people who stutter are of below-normal intelligence. In the United States, campaigns have shown famous personalities, such as actor Bruce Willis and golfer Tiger Woods, who once stammered.

In Argentina, the Association awards a prize every year to a public figure who admits that he or she once had a stuttering problem.

The prize carries the name of Argentina's best-known stutterer, the great writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), who laughingly admitted to his problem after he was already famous. He lost the fear of speaking in public with medical help, and became a professor of literature and a skilled public speaker.

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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