I've written an article for the NCT newsletter, whose subject is 'communication' this time round. The NCT, by the way, have had the pleasure of me volunteering (no, I don't know what I was thinking either!) to assist the co-ordination of the nearly new sale and various other things.
Anyway, I've just sent it across and it's here:
Pixie was always a physically advanced baby and toddler, so in a sense I was expecting him to be a slower talker (I’d heard the adage ‘a baby’s a walker or a talker but not both’!), so when his peers picked up words slightly faster than him I wasn’t bothered and assumed he’d get there in his own time.
Just before Christmas 2011 (when he was two and a half) his dad and I started to notice that Pixie was stuttering. At that point he was having a huge burst of vocabulary so we put it down to his mouth catching up with his brain and didn’t really think much more about it. It happened again, and again, and in about February we realised that what he was doing was above and beyond ‘normal’ childhood development and in the realms of having a speech problem.
His stutter has presented perfectly typically. He’s 3 (most stutters present between 3-5 years), he’s male (approximately 3/5 stutterers are male), he has parents with slight speech issues (there appears to be a familial link between stutterers, although the exact cause is unknown) and he’s had a great deal of stressful change in a short period of time (new sibling and a change of childcare provider) – I’m not sure he could be more of a classic presentation! Unfortunately knowing that he’s ‘typical’ hasn’t assuaged the sadness I feel watching him struggle to get his words out.
I’ve mentioned my concerns to other people who come into contact with Pixie. Their assurances that “he’s not that bad” do little to ease my worries. Either they’re wrong and it is that bad or I – the very person who’s meant to know him best – can’t understand him. I’ve been told that there are reasons for his stutter to present worse in front of parents but even that does little to alleviate the worry – parenthood is one long mass of guilt and worry, isn’t it?
Although Pixie is only just vaguely becoming aware that he has a stutter (he’s very recently started to stop himself in the middle of sentences and drift off for a moment before starting afresh), he’s becoming increasingly aware and frustrated by people’s inability to understand him. Worse, he’s started to realise when people are pretending to understand and he’s been in tears several times because of it. Having to translate what he’s saying to people feels like I’m undermining him and removing his voice, yet if I don’t then he doesn’t get to say what he wants to say.
I’ve recently completed the first stage of speech therapy, which is parent-only group sessions aimed at giving caregivers the techniques necessary to assist the stutterer in talking. The key points are to limit questions and only ask necessary ones (which seems counterintuitive when your child is still learning to talk!); make fewer demands on their speech (no more “tell daddy what you did at nursery today!”); slow your own speech down to model a better speech pattern; remove environmental distractions so speech can be concentrated on; remove any competition in speech so they’re not fighting to be heard in family life.
Some of what we’ve been asked to do feels very much as though a step back is being taken – simplifying language seems wrong when as a parent your job is to help teach your child an expansive and diverse vocabulary. We worried that we’d never get a proper conversation out of Pixie again if we didn’t ask him questions, but surprisingly giving him space to talk (or not, as he prefers) has probably resulted in better conversation because he’s telling us what he wants us to know rather than what we’re asking him to tell us. Remembering that it’s ok for children not to want to talk all the time, and that we as adults don’t need to know the ins and outs of their day away from us. After three group sessions the feeling that we’re going backwards has started to abate and we feel as though we’re better equipped to handle Pixie's problem. Changing the way we speak is hard, and we often find ourselves stalling halfway through a sentence as we realise we’re about to end it with a question. But as Pixie is learning to get through the stutter, we’re also learning how to best assist him.
The next stage in his therapy is an assessment through play, which is scheduled for a couple of weeks’ time. From there we’ll know exactly what problems we’re dealing with and the speech therapist will be able to review his progress over time. With any luck Pixie will be one of the children who outgrow their stutter – only 1% of children carry it through into adulthood. If he’s not then I’m hopeful that an early intervention will give him and us the tools to adapt in the wider world.