All children starting school should be screened for stuttering speech that may persist into their teens, researchers have said
A team at University College London have developed a screening test that can identify the children who have a problem stutter from those in whom it will resolve.
One in 20 children with a stutter at age five and for one per cent of children this will continue into their teenage years. Those who are given professional help from a speech and language therapist at an early age are more likely to improve and get the stutter under control.
Screening for communication problems at key stages, including school entry, was identified by the government in its Every Child Matters initiative, launched ten years ago. The screen involves scoring the severity of the stutter on a sliding scale and the team have identified the threshold score, above which the stutter is likely to persist.
Early research on eight year-olds tracked until their teens formed the basis for the screening test and now the team have found it can work on children as young as five. One in 20 children under the age of five stutter, with most beginning at around age three. Prof Peter Howell, said one of the tell tale signs they found that the stutter would persist was that children got stuck on the beginning of a word, or repeated just the starting sound of a word, rather than repeating the whole word.
He said: “There should be attention to this. We think speech and language therapists could administer the screening test or train school nurses to do it. “There are consistent findings to show that early interventions are more successful than if the stutter is left and treatment attempted later.”
The screening test was accurate in identifying stuttering but less so in ruling out children who were not stuttering. But Prof Howell said it may be that those children who were incorrectly identified as stutterers may in fact have other problems such as hearing impairment or other communications difficulties which would benefit from professional help.
The findings were published in the Journal of Fluency Disorders.
Professor Howell said: “In order for a screening tool to be used it effectively, it needs to meet the rigorous standards for accurately identifying children who stutter separately from children who are fluent. We found that this method can do just that. “If we can identify children at risk of stuttering, then we can offer appropriate interventions to help them early on. Primary school is a key time in a child’s development and any help in tackling potential communication problems could make a big difference to the child’s life.”