THE BLOG

Stuttering Is No One's Fault

05/12/2015 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016
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Last week the rapper Scroobius Pip was interviewed on the BBC talking about his stutter. In the midst of a great piece on the ways he has been shaped by his speech, Pip starts to talk about the causes of his condition, "Pip's stutter emerged when he was four or five. He thinks it may be related to nearly drowning on a holiday in France - a fact which came to light during a hypnosis session as a teenager. His parents had maintained the incident hadn't been serious but re-living the event made him believe he had been in real danger."

Pip isn't alone. It turns out that nearly everyone has a family tale for why they stutter. They range from falling out of trees to traumatic tonsil operations. Predictably, perhaps, they revolve around physical pain, emotional repression, illness and death. In my own life, I spent many years believing that my stutter was the result of my grandma's death.

In truth, Pip's "nearly drowning" hypothesis, along with all of our personal mythologies, has no scientific grounding. They show, instead, how little we know about our own condition. They are stories, and potentially damaging ones at that. I believe it is time to let ourselves, and our families, off the hook.

These are the facts: stuttering is not caused by psychological trauma, unsupportive parenting or mental neurosis. Rather, stuttering is a genetically influenced, neurological condition.

Researchers at the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, have identified genetic mutations in the brains cells of people who stutter. They have also used PET and MRI scans to highlight specific regions of the brain, those areas associated with the formulation of language and the production of speech movements, that develop differently in people who stutter.

There is still much work to be done, but they have proven that stuttering is a biological disorder.

That is not to say that a lifetime spent stuttering might not make us prone to anxiety. And that anxiety may, in a vicious, escalating cycle, ignite more stuttered speech. But the root cause of stuttering is not psychological.

As Dr Scott Yaruss, Director of Speech Language Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, so keenly explains, "People who stutter are not doing anything wrong; they are simply doing the best they can with a neurological system that is not wired for the production of smooth speech."

It is simple. And yet, the stories that surround stuttering are not. Harmless though they may seem, these misconceptions, passed around as facts, become part of the general misunderstanding of the condition. Parents are left feeling guilty about something they do not understand and children are left feeling ashamed of a voice they cannot control.

The truth is, it is no one's fault.