Stuttering best approached with affirmative action

Hamburg - Joachim Haas' school years were a nightmare because of a speech impediment which led to him being ridiculed by his classmates.

"I was afraid. I experienced real panic at times," recalls Haas, 29, who is from Giessen in western Germany.

There are many people like Haas who stutter, an illness that repeatedly interrupts the flow of speech.

British politician Winston Churchill and US actress Marilyn Monroe stuttered.

"Unfortunately stuttering is still linked to a high number of preconceptions," says Maria Schwormstedt, a doctor at the Techniker Health Insurance company in Hamburg.

"Teenagers who don't speak fluently are often marginalized and tormented by their school mates and underestimated by their teachers." However, stuttering has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence.

Doctors are still arguing about what causes a person to stutter. What they do know is that some children between the ages of two and five begin stuttering without any apparent cause.

Some experts believe that the roots of stuttering lie in our genes while others think it begins during a phase of speech development that children go through.

"Every child has problems speaking fluidly during this period. Stuttering, however, makes those problems permanent," says Werner Rauschan, a speech therapist from Saarbrucken in southwest Germany.

Most children have negative associations with stuttering and that causes stress.

"That, in turn, leads to tension and pressure because the affected child strains to overcome the stuttering - which causes even more stress."

Stuttering also has a lot to do with our emotions. "In relaxed situations, stuttering can become less acute," says Rauschan.

Everything changed for Joachim Haas once he left school and began a training course.

"A second life began for me at that time."

Haas took the important step of beginning a therapy guided by the Charles Van Riper Method which taught him how not to hide himself.

"You should confront the problem of stuttering head on and never feel inferior," advises Rauschan. "That can help to ease fear and build up self confidence."

The main principle of the therapy is to learn how to cope with speech interruptions and to consciously allow stuttering to happen.

The affected person does that with a number of tricks that help to mask stuttering in everyday situations such as using well versed phrases or simply by remaining silent.

Joining a self-help group can help in addition to therapy. A group is a good place to exchange views and experiences as well as practice reading.

"Apart from that, we go downtown together and go shopping and stutter when we talk to people," says Haas. "That teaches us to deal with certain situations and people's reactions." (dpa)