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The Science behind Stuttering

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    Colton Nover, 10, works on a school report with his mother, Holly Nover, in St. Johns, Florida. Both mother and son stutter. Stuttering sometimes seems pass down in families. (AP/Fran Ruchalski)
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    Holly Nover was self-conscious about her stutter while growing up. Now she is a speech pathologist who helps others with speech problems. (AP/Fran Ruchalski)
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    Now-President Joe Biden talks with Brayden Harrington, 12, on February 10, 2020, in Gilford, New Hampshire. Both have struggled with stuttering. (AP/Andrew Harnik)
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    Brayden wrote a book called Brayden Speaks Up: How One Boy Inspired the Nation. (Handout)
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    Moses told God that he was not a good speaker. But God said that He would teach Moses what to say—and provide help in his brother Aaron.
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For centuries, people have feared being judged for speech disorders. Globally, about 70 million people stutter. Recent research reveals that genetics and brain differences may cause this oft-misunderstood condition.

Historians have documented stuttering (or stammering) in ancient China, Greece, and Rome. Famous stutterers include Winston Churchill, Shaquille O’Neal, Lewis Carroll, and President Joe Biden. Some Jewish scholars believe the biblical Moses stammered!

Many people incorrectly believe people stutter because they’re nervous, shy, unintelligent, or traumatized—and if they tried harder, they could stop.

Holly Nover grew up trying to hide her stutter. “I was very self-conscious,” she says. “So I developed habits to switch my words so it wouldn’t be noticed.”

Modern genetic science and brain imaging have begun providing clues to what causes stuttering. Researchers identified the first genes strongly linked to stuttering more than a decade ago.

More recently, University of Delaware speech disorder researcher Ho Ming Chow began looking at 3- to 5-year-olds. That’s when many kids begin stuttering, with about 80% outgrowing it.

Chow and his colleagues found genetic mutations related to stuttering are linked to physical brain abnormalities. These can affect communication, sensory information sorting, and coordination. Excess levels of a certain chemical in the brain may also contribute to speech disorders.

“We know stuttering has a really strong genetic component,” Chow says. Though several genes may be involved and the exact genetic causes may vary by child, “they probably affect the brain in a similar way.”

Speech therapy is the modern mainstay of stuttering treatment. But medicines could be approved for stuttering in the next few years.

Dr. Gerald Maguire is a California psychiatrist involved in research that tests possible medications to control stuttering.

Nover, a speech pathologist active in the National Stuttering Association, says many people will likely be interested in such treatments—but not her. She’s happy after having accepted her stuttering. However, she would consider allowing her 10-year-old son to try such treatments when he’s older.

Meanwhile, 14-year-old Brayden Harrington doesn’t want stuttering meds. He feels taking medicine is “taking away part of your personality.” Brayden believes that without his stutter, he wouldn’t have decided to become a speech and language pathologist or written an inspirational children’s book.

Brayden met an prominent fellow stutterer in 2020. He and then-candidate Joe Biden talked for an hour. The President gave Brayden some sage advice: “[Stuttering] does not define you. . . . You can be much more than you see yourself as.”

Dr. Maguire says, “By understanding the biology, we’re going to decrease the stigma.”

Why? God made humans in His own image, and yet He made each individual unique. Consider what that says about the beauty and complexity of the Creator—and about how we should treat those with differences!