In The King's Speech, Colin Firth portrays the stuttering, struggling King George VI - a gripping and authentic performance that not only has earned the esteemed British actor Academy accolades, but also is raising awareness about an oft-misunderstood speech condition.
Stuttering (or stammering as it is called in the UK) is characterized by repetitions of words or sounds and prolongations in the flow of speech. Speech also may become stopped or blocked (as experienced by King George), when the mouth is positioned to say a word but no sound is forthcoming.
An estimated 3 million adults and children in the United States stutter and five percent of all children will do so for some period in their lives, from a few weeks to several years. Stuttering is most common in children ages 2 -5 as they develop language skills with boys outnumbering girls by a two to one margin. It resolves in almost 80 percent of children, with less than 1 percent of adults being afflicted, of which about 80 percent are men.
Despite its prevalence, the condition still seems to perplex many people. They presume that those who stutter do so because they're nervous, anxious, or shy - none of which is necessarily true, though anxiety may trigger the halting speech. While it's common for stutterers to be told to "Just take a deep breath and think about what they want to say and it will come out clearly," actually, they know exactly what they want to utter, it's just that they can't produce the right sounds in the right order.
Stuttering's exact causes are unknown. Two types are most common. Developmental stuttering, occurring in young children learning speech and language, is most often seen. Studies in families and identical twins indicate that there is a strong genetic component. In fact, in 2010, for the first time, three genes linked to stuttering were identified by researchers. Neurogenic stuttering, another form of this speech woe, may occur after a stroke, head trauma or other brain injury. The rarest form of stuttering is psychogenic and usually involves rapid repetitions of initial sounds. This condition occurs in those who have a history of psychiatric problems or following an emotionally traumatic event.
While stuttering is often associated with nerves, fear of meeting new people and other emotional situations, these freighted moments really tend to be caused by the stutter itself. A powerful point of Firth's Oscar-winning performance shows on his face - his embarrassment, shame and sheer terror as he stands before a microphone and presses to pour out his words. While these are feelings those afflicted can relate to, they are a side effect, not a cause, of stuttering.
As children learn to use language in new ways, it's not unusual for them sometimes to stutter. In general, it's a good idea to get children evaluated if they stutter more than 10 percent of the time, do so for more than six months or if there is a family history of stuttering. Early treatment of young children and therapy by a speech-language pathologist may prevent developmental stuttering from evolving into a lifelong problem. The Stuttering Foundation is a useful site to visit to learn about the various therapies that are available.
With stuttering children, parents should offer a model of slow, relaxed speech - not so slowly so it sounds abnormal but unhurried and with many pauses. This approach is especially helpful when parents combine it with undivided attention for their child for some time each day.
When conversing with an adult or child who stutters, do these few simple things:
-- Listen to what they say, not how they say it. Give the speaker your full attention and don't look away, an act that may be construed as embarrassment.
-- Slow your own rate of speech. Pause between sentences or thoughts. Fast talkers who chatter along without pause tend to speed up conversation in general.
-- Don't try to finish their sentence for them. If you're wrong, this forces a stutterer to start anew, which is exhausting and frustrating. It doesn't help to tell them to "slow down," "relax," or "take a deep breath."
King George and others who stutter keep good company. The historic list includes Aristotle, writers Lewis Carroll and Somerset Maugham, crooner Elvis Presley and screen icon Marilyn Monroe. James Earl Jones, the instantly recognized and much acclaimed bass-voiced actor, stutters. "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen," said Winston Churchill, one of the greatest orators in history. He'd know. He stuttered, too.
Follow Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CedarsSinai