Stuttering is a form of speech disorder characterised by difficulty getting words out, and involves repetitions or prolongations of sounds. These difficulties usually arise in early childhood and one way of helping children who stutter could be for them to read novels that involve a character who stutters. However, whether such books will be helpful depends on how stuttering is portrayed. To find out Kenneth Logan and colleagues identified and reviewed 29 children's fictional books published since 1988, all of which featured a stuttering character (plot summaries of some of these are available online).
Overall, Logan's team concluded that the books were accurate and sensitive enough to be useful in therapy. However, looking more closely, it was clear that the books scored a mixture of misses and hits.
The gender imbalance in stuttering was underestimated: the books suggested boys exhibit stuttering twice as often as girls, when the reality is three to four times. . In real life, the condition is usually mild but it tended to be severe in the books. There were some inaccuracies in the way symptoms were presented. For example, in The Treasure Bird, the character Jessy exhibits final sound repetitions (e.g. "bird-d") which is extremely rare.
Also, whereas stuttering runs in families and is seen by modern experts as an inherited pre-disposition that may be triggered by environmental circumstances, only a few of the books mentioned that stuttering is heritable; in fact the causes of the condition were seldom discussed.
Having said all that, the books often gave moving insights into the frustrations of stuttering. "My heart and head hold so many words and thoughts, but my mouth is like a jailer that won't release them," says 15-year-old Frederick in The Only Outcast.
The books also captured the variability of symptoms - the fact that people
who stutter are often fine in some circumstances (e.g. when singing) but not others. The novels also conveyed the trauma of teasing experienced by many stutterers, and the frustrations of having a listener attempt to fill in their words for them - a typical response which only makes things worse.
Regarding treatment - the books rarely dealt with typical speech therapy, instead focusing on characters' use of idiosyncratic strategies or the benefits of social and emotional support. Although a serious weakness, this latter aspect actually chimes with a recent qualitative study of stutterers, in which many of them said emotional support had been pivotal in their recovery.
"Although empirical details at times take a back seat to adventure, intrigue and character development in this genre," the researchers concluded, "the books nearly all succeeded at offering young people who stutter a sense of hope - and that of course is an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to change how they live."
Logan, K.J., Mullins, M.S. & Jones, K.M. (2008). The depiction of stuttering in contemporary juvenile fiction: Implications for clinical practice Psychology in the Schools, 45 (7), 609-626 DOI: 10.1002/pits.20313
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.