Why do people stutter? Stuttering causes, how to stop and more

“Mary Poppins Returns" star Emily Blunt was terrified by her childhood stutter, but many kids who stutter go on to do fine.
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/ Source: TODAY
By A. Pawlowski

As Emily Blunt sings, dances and plays a powerful personality in “Mary Poppins Returns,” it’s difficult to imagine she once hardly spoke at all, terrified by a childhood stutter.

“By the age of 12, it was really bad, so I was quite quiet because I just didn’t want to speak. It wasn’t like I was lonely — I had lots of friends — but they were like, ‘Why can’t you say it? Just say it,’” Blunt said in an interview with CBS Sunday Morning.

“The person who changed my life with it was my teacher at the time who told me to do the class play. And I said no. And he said, ‘Well, do it in a silly voice. I’ve heard you doing silly voices.’ And I could speak fluently. Actually, there are so many stutterers who are actors.”

Indeed, the Stuttering Foundation of America lists Nicole Kidman, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones and Bruce Willis among the many famous people who struggled with stuttering.

Blunt’s stutter has never gone away entirely, she told People earlier this year.

“It still comes back and flares if I’m really tired, or when I was pregnant it was really prominent again,” Blunt told the magazine. “It runs in my family. I had an uncle, cousin, grandfather who stuttered. It’s nothing to do with anxiety. It’s just a kind of brain-synapse thing that happens to people who are genetically predisposed to have it. The worst is having it at 12, 13.”

How many people are affected by stuttering?

About 1 percent of humans worldwide — including 3 million Americans — stutter, with the condition affecting people of all ages, but most commonly children 2 to 6 years old, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Up to 10 percent of children will be affected at some point, with boys two to three times as likely to stutter as girls. About three-quarters of affected kids recover from stuttering; for others, it’s a lifelong problem.

What causes stuttering?

It’s not well understood, but doctors now know there are two types of stuttering:

  1. Developmental stuttering: the most common form, it occurs in children as they are learning speech and language skills, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders noted. A 2013 study suggested it’s fairly common for preschool-age children to stutter — and those who do tend to do fine, both emotionally and socially. Developmental stuttering may also run in families: about 60 percent of people who stutter have a family member who also has the condition, according to the Stuttering Foundation of America.
  2. Neurogenic stuttering: this may start after a stroke, head trauma, or other type of brain injury.

Stuttering caused by emotional trauma — once thought to be the primary reason — is rare. Still, psychology plays a role: Feeling frustrated, tense, excited or rushed can make a person stutter more, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

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How to stop stuttering:

  • Speech therapy can help a person reduce their stutter by learning to speak more slowly, regulate breathing and reduce anxiety. For kids, treatment involves teaching parents about creating a supportive, relaxed environment that encourages the child to speak.
  • Some medicines approved to treat epilepsy, anxiety or depression have been used to treat stuttering, but they come with side effects.
  • Electronic in-ear devices that delay or change the sound of a person's own voice may be an option. Research into whether they are effective long-term continues.
  • Self-help groups can offer support and confidence for people to overcome their stutter.