Following International Stammering Awareness Day, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan - Labour MP for Tooting - opens up about her experience of having a stammer as a child.
A child who stammers can feel frustrated, misunderstood, even angry. They can feel as though there is a huge insurmountable wall between them and the rest of the world. Daily activities can become an impossible challenge. I know this, not as a doctor nor as a Member of Parliament, but as someone who had a stammer for many years when I was younger.
While in many cases we don’t know what precisely causes children to stammer, I know in my case it was associated with significant childhood trauma I experienced. Whatever the cause, we do know the stigma and emotional turmoil that stammering children face, is immense.
I remember feelings of shame, isolation and embarrassment. A sense that no-one could help me. I remember all too well, picking teams during PE at school and avoiding choosing teammates with names beginning with certain letters for fear of ridicule from classmates. I remember the eye-rolls, the shop assistants walking away mid-sentence and the phone calls where I would be hung-up on.
The danger is that children withdraw and lose the social contact that is so vital in their early years development. They can lose confidence. And I am afraid to say, from my own experience, that there are still people in our country who mock stammering people, mimic their speech patterns, or even label them ‘stupid’. This must change. Around 8% of children experience a stammer in their young lives. Often it can start in primary school, and can lead to bullying, ridicule and mental illnesses such as anxiety. It can disrupt education and lead to a child being absent from school.
All these years later, the impact of my childhood stammer remains with me. In Parliament, I still look down at my speeches and consider changing words to avoid certain letters. I should be thinking 'This should not matter because I am in a space where I will not be judged' but sadly much is to change before those that stammer feel accepted and disfluency (involuntary disruption in the flow of speech) is accepted as normal in society. For the many children, as well as the 1 in 50 adults who stammer, this social change cannot come soon enough.
More than 65,000 children are waiting for access to a speech and language therapist.
Three things need to happen. One, we need to fund the neurological research into the causes of stammering so we can better understand the condition. Two, we need to raise awareness and understanding, tackling the stigma and prejudice, and make every child and adult with a stammer appreciate they are not alone. And third, early intervention and support must be prioritised. More than 65,000 children are waiting for access to a speech and language therapist. Prompt access to support is vital to empower young people who stammer to reach their potential. With yet more dither and delay from the government, more children will be left behind.
Children need to see role models who have got on with their lives despite their stammer. Well known people from Joe Biden, to Kendrick Lamar, to the founder of the NHS Aneurin Bevan, all experienced stammers during their lives.
No child should be held back, nor feel stigmatised. No child should be bullied or teased. No child should feel alone. No-one writing comedy scripts should think a stammering character is good for a cheap laugh. We need a transformation in social attitudes, and a revolution in research and therapy, so that every child with a stammer knows they can smash down the wall, challenge the stigma and reach their full potential.