Is there really a “window of opportunity” for treating young children who stutter? We were told there was eighteen years ago. Many parents are still told that today. The window is supposedly widest when they’re around three, and slowly closes over the next few years. The reasoning behind this theory is brain plasticity. Children’s brains are softer and easier to shape. That window is pretty much slammed shut once they reach around six years of age. At least that’s what they told us.
Eli was almost six when we were first told of the “window.” I envisioned shoving his wide head and long legs through that final crack of an opening. We had just recently been introduced to speech tools that he was suppose to practice in order to not stutter. Before that they had told us to slow down, make good eye contact, and don’t interrupt. Why hadn’t they introduced us to these tools earlier? We were almost out of time now! I was terrified, furious, confused, and panicked. I sat Eli down and forced him to practice at least once a day. How else would that gooey brain harden like it was suppose to? When he didn’t get better, the speech therapist told me to practice more, practice harder – and we did. By the time he was nine, it was easier to just not talk – and he didn’t.
Fast forward 18 years, years filled with heartbreak, research, writing, and discovery, and the publication of the book I wished I could have read when we were starting out. I know now that neuroscience is no where near understanding a child’s brain enough to verify that speech tools – or any of the therapy approaches used on young children, actually affect brain plasticity. At the same time, research done over decades has consistently told us that 80% of kids will recover with or without therapy. So for the child who, for whatever reason, doesn’t recover – we’ve just spent almost their entire childhood telling them they talk wrong and we want them to stop doing that. Then we spend the rest of the time trying to get them to accept their stutter – heck, even be proud of it. This is insane! Why do we keep doing this?
I posed the “window of opportunity” question to Dr. Dennis Drayna, a well-respected geneticist with the National Institute of Health and a member of the Stuttering Foundation of America Board. Here was his reply:
“As a geneticist, I’m woefully underqualified in the clinical aspects of stuttering, but I can say that the concept of a window of opportunity is widely believed, and is supported by a lot of general information about brain development and plasticity. But actual evidence bearing on this in stuttering is surprisingly incomplete. A major obstacle here is that the changes that occur in the brain during stuttering recovery are difficult to see with existing technology. I think brain imaging studies done over the course of therapy could shed light on this, but these are expensive and I’m not aware of any reported to date.”
Why in the world is this metaphor tossed out with so little evidence to support it? Do speech therapists have any idea of the anxiety and fear this instills in parents? Do they understand how much a parent’s anxiety can negatively impact a child?
Let’s start with “it’s okay to stutter.” Let’s focus on building resilience, self-confidence, passion, and joy in our little ones. Let’s surround them with non-judgmental cloak of acceptance and love and put the idea of fixing them aside. Let’s start there and stay there.
Keep Them Talking!