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Stuttering - Some Facts and Answers
    by Marek Roland-Mieszkowski, Ph.D., Digital Recordings

    This paper was published in the February/March 1994 edition of the Ability Network magazine and has been recommended by Digital Recordings as suggested reading for their DSA (Digital Speech Aid) product.

    Copyright 1994-2014, Digital Recordings. All Rights Reserved.


What is Stuttering?

Stuttering is a speech disorder which manifests itself in the form of involuntary repetitions, prolongations and blocks during speech. These are often accompanied by facial spasms and body movements in more severe cases. Stuttering often leads to embarrassment, apprehension and fear of loss of speech control.

Stuttering occurs to various degrees in about 1% of adults and about 4% of children (under the age of 12), which means that, eventually, some of the children overcame the disorder. It occurs about four times more often in males than in females. The majority of stutterers can sing and whisper without problems.

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Origins of Stuttering

In many cases, stuttering was believed to be caused by psychological disorders and nervousness. This stigma still exists among a large part of the medical and health community as well as the general population.

Low self esteem, nervousness, and problems in communicating with other people frequently lead to dropping out of school, not being promoted at work etc. During childhood and, later, in school, children are the brunt of teasing. This can cause trauma and children who are reluctant to attend school. I believe that most of these problems are a result of misconceptions about stuttering.

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Coping with Stuttering and Available Therapies

Coping with stuttering depends on the particular case and the environment in which the person is working and living. Treatment offered by Speech Pathologists involves various techniques to slow down speech, coordinate speech production with breathing, change ways of speaking and pronouncing words etc. It also involves some counselling and relaxation therapy which very often overlaps with work and input from Psychologists.

These techniques work to a certain degree and results depend very much on the particular case. They tend to work better in a clinical setting than in the real world where a person cannot concentrate as much on speech production. Unfortunately, many of these techniques require a conscious effort on the part of the stutterer. Many people give up speech therapy because they feel that fluent, but unnatural sounding speech is worse than stuttering itself. It is estimated that about 5% to 10% of stutterers are receiving some form of therapy. The low numbers are an indication of the effectiveness of current treatments!

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Other Techniques and Devices

Various other methods were used in the past to combat stuttering, including mechanical devices used in the mouth (marbles, inserts etc.). These were effective for a short time only. Newer devices are based on electronics. In DAF (Delay Auditory Feedback), the stutterer's own speech is delayed, forcing him/her to slow down. Another device - Edinburgh Masker - produces a noise which masks the stutterer's own speech. There are several similar devices. Some of them are annoying and not comfortable to use. If they work for a particular stutterer, they usually remain effective over time.

Some people believe that conscious control of speech is better than using these devices. I disagree.

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Misconceptions about Stuttering

If stuttering is indeed a physiological disorder (with a neurological basis in most cases), telling a person to control it does not make much sense. It is like telling people with faulty vision to take off their glasses and concentrate to see better.

Similarly, if somebody has a hearing disorder and requires a hearing aid to hear normal conversation - what will happen if we ask this person to take out his hearing aid and concentrate in order to hear? But this is exactly what stutterers are often told - concentrate, relax, use certain techniques and everything will be fine. Unfortunately, it only works in certain cases. What about the others? They are told, that they have to concentrate and practice more. When they fail, this leads to further frustration, and more deterioration of self-image and self-esteem. "If others can do it and I cannot, it means that I am a weaker person."

Another interesting fact associated with this and supporting the notion that the disorder is physiological in nature is that hypnotic therapy does not have lasting long- term effects. A mental function' which could be controlled consciously, should be very susceptible to hypnotic therapy.

Stutterers become nervous (in the opinion of Digital Speech Aid inventors), because they stutter (not as believed by some, that they stutter because they are nervous). There are profound implications underlying these very different understandings.

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A New Approach to Understanding Stuttering

Several years ago I started a series of experiments to uncover the mechanisms which cause stuttering and to find some techniques to compensate for this physiological (as I contend) deficiency of speech. After reading the literature and talking to several experts in the field, I realized that very little is known about stuttering and even less is understood. I was stunned by the many misinterpretations of the facts and experimental results.

It became obvious to me later why this is so - simply put, the majority of people in the field of the Speech Pathology have very little background in math, physics, acoustics, electronics and signal processing.

Therefore, my new approach and interpretations were met with skepticism in some cases and with hostility in others.

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Digital Speech Aid (DSA)

The culmination of my new approach was a better understanding of the stuttering disorder. And understanding always leads to discovery and to new inventions.

A very talented Polish professor, Dr. Andrzej Czyzewski from Technical University of Gdansk, Poland helped to put this understanding of stuttering disorders into practice. Together we have designed the most sophisticated device to date - Digital Speech Aid. Since this device is under patent at the present time, I cannot elaborate on exactly how it works.

DSA is aimed to correct "classical stutterers" who are characterized by the usual patterns of stuttering, have no problem with speech synthesis and do not stutter during whispering. Subjects outside of this group can also benefit in some cases, but results are less predictable.

DSA is perfectly safe. It is an acoustical device which puts out low-intensity acoustical signals into stutterers' ears via a standard Walkman-type set of earphones. Furthermore, the output of the device is protected from overload, making this safer than personal stereos and Walkmans.

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Answers to Frequently Asked Questions about DSA

DSA is a small, sophisticated, battery operated, electronic device using a microphone and a pair of earphones. It is most effective in the case of 'Classical Stutterers" who make up about 80% to 90% of the stuttering population. Significant improvement or total fluency has been observed in 40% to 60% of "Classical Stutterers". The rest have shown some degree of improvement. We are making real life tests of the device, and improvements were observed in all situations: in the office, at home, on the telephone, during public meetings, presentations, good and bad days, etc. There is an immediate improvement; however, we observe an increase in effectiveness during the first 3 to 4 weeks. After that there is little change.

There seems to be some carryover effect as the person remams fluent for about 2 to 6 hours after using DSA in some cases. We have also observed significant improvements in self-esteem and confidence. People like DSA and say that it is relaxing.

Long term effects seem to support our theory and expectations. DSA is still effective at the same level after three months of use. It is a kind of prosthetic device, only it does not have to be worn all the time.

Our theory and data have not yet been published. DSA is to be patented internationally, and we are presently developing an International Research Program for DSA testing. The initial results are good, but further testing will be required to substantiate our claims.

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First Clinical Trials

The first prototypes of DSA were finished in May 1992. Some of the first clinical trials were very exciting and the device met with approval from people with a stuttering disorder. The following testimony from a speech pathologist is typical: " ...I think that Digital Speech Aid (DSA)is extremely effective in the elimination of stuttering, even in cases of very severe stuttering. ... During my 30-years long practice as a speech pathologist, no technique was as successful. I believe that we finally have the green light for people who have till now problems with elimination of stuttering. ... We are waiting very anxiously for DSA to appear on the market and become available for all stuttering people ..." Halina Stawikowska, Speech Pathologist, June 4, 1992. Trials conducted in 1993 in Canada have yielded equally enthusiastic results.

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Final Remarks

I believe that we are very close to an explanation of the stuttering disorder. My hope is that scientists from different fields will join together to advance our knowledge of this disorder and its treatment. Without this approach progress will be as slow as in the last several decades.

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