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‘Many people associate fluency and big words with success, but it doesn’t have to be like this.’

Untangling the mysteries of stuttering has been a long and challenging journey. Elaina Kefalianos joined the fray. 

Interview by Bessie Byrne
 

‘There’s a common fallacy that people who stutter are not as smart as their more fluent counterparts. However, new studies have shown that stuttering is not caused by environment, temperament or intellect. 

In recent years, speech pathologists’ understanding of stuttering has been rapidly developed and it is now understood that stuttering is the result of an error or delay in the brain that occurs when the person speaks.

The finding that anxiety doesn’t cause stuttering has developed our understanding and it pushed researchers to ask what the causal factors might actually be. It also became clearer that stuttering may cause anxiety and can have a serious impact on peoples’ wellbeing.

When I started my PhD five years ago, I was analysing whether there was a relationship between children’s temperament and the development of stuttering. I was looking at this relationship from both directions.

We found that the temperament of children who stutter is similar to those of children who didn’t stutter. Therefore, we can say that temperament is not associated with the onset of stuttering.

We also found that there was no evidence to suggest that stuttering was causing anxiety or temperament changes in children up to the age of four. So, the relationship between stuttering and anxiety may develop after this age.

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My initial research was based on the findings of the Early Language in Victoria, or ELVS study, a longitudinal study that began gathering information about 1900 children when they were eight-months old. Most of the data was gathered through questionnaires and face to face interviews that the parents were asked to complete.

The children are now turning 11 and many of them are still participating in follow-up studies. The ELVS team recruited 1600 of these children at the age of two to look specifically at stuttering.

Stuttering usually begins between the ages of two and five, around the time that we learn how to make sentences. Around 11 per cent of children will stutter by the time they are four years old but most children will naturally outgrow this stuttering.

Our research is concerned with the fact that up to 40 per cent of children who stutter develop persistent stuttering. Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing who will grow out of it and who won’t.

Speech pathologists recommend early intervention, as research shows that stuttering therapy has significantly better outcomes for pre-schoolers than it does for older children or adults as treatment for adults who stutter is based around managing stuttering rather than trying to minimise it.

‘Around sixty per cent of people who stutter have a family member who has stuttered too. We know that there is a genetic link, we just don’t know which genes are involved.’

Currently, we are researching why some children take longer than others to respond to treatment by looking at genes and brain images.

We are using neuro-imaging techniques to compare brain scans of seven-to-12 year old children. We are comparing images of the parts of the brain that are used to produce speech, before and after children start treatment, to see what changes happen in the brain.

We are also involved with research looking at the relationship between genetics and stuttering. Around sixty per cent of people who stutter have a family member who has stuttered too. We know that there is a genetic link, we just don’t know which genes are involved. 

It is hoped that with further research our understanding of stuttering improves; in turn this will improve our clinical knowledge and enhance our approach to treatment.

Many people associate fluency and big words with success, but it doesn’t have to be like this. The more research that is done on stuttering, the better people will understand that people who stutter are as varied as the rest of humanity and should be judged on their personalities, intellect, and capabilities rather than the fact that they sometimes struggle getting words out.’

Elaina Kefalianos investigated the expression of temperament traits, including the precursors of anxiety, within a prospective, longitudinal study of stuttering children. 

My PhD is an irregular series in which The Citizen speaks with recent Melbourne University PhD graduates. 

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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