Stuttering is in the spotlight this week, thanks to the amazing, emotional performance by 23-year-old stuttering comedian Drew Lynch on America's Got Talent.
As we learn from Lynch's stage conversation and background interviews, Lynch did not always stutter. "I had a sports injury. That's what I talk like this...I was on a softball team. There was a grounder that took a bad hop and hit me in my throat, which damaged some nerves in my vocal cords." He explains that he had a concussion from the event, and developed the stutter.
This video has been rapidly traveling through the stuttering-social media world. Two main theme comments seem to accompany it. One: "This is great and inspiring!" (I agree!). Two: "Wait, can you really get a stutter that way?"
Short answer: yes. Thanks for reading!
Long answer: yes, but it's unusual, and complicated. Read on...
For the very vast majority of people who stutter, stuttering first occurs during childhood, typically during the preschool years. Most preschoolers who start stuttering will recover from it within a few months, but about 20-25% of these kids will stutter for their entire lives.
There is currently no one single "cause" of stuttering that has been identified, but there are many factors which may indicate whether or not a child will outgrow their stuttering, or persist into adulthood. Genetics, temperament, environment, cognitive ability, and life experience can all play a part.
Most adults who stutter have a long, life history of dealing with a speech disorder. So what's up with this sports injury thing?
"Related disorders of disfluency"
(to borrow a chapter title from Barry Guitar)
There are two "other" kinds of stuttering, distinct from the typical developmental stutter: neurogenic stuttering and psychogenic stuttering.
- Neurogenic stuttering can occur following damage to the brain. Damage can be caused by an injury, stroke, progressive neurological disease like Parkinson's, or even as a side effect of drug toxicity.
- Psychogenic stuttering can occur following a traumatic event or stressful time in life. In psychogenic stuttering, there are no physiological issues causing the disfluencies.
These "other" types of stuttering can be tricky to identify, depending on the situation. There is relatively little research and information about these conditions, compared to typical developmental stuttering. It is also necessary to rule out any possibility of prior developmental stuttering, which may be hard to do. These may also occur in combination; a person who experiences a traumatic injury could have some neurogenic and some psychogenic components.
So, can getting hit in the throat cause a stutter?
Stuttering is absolutely known to occur due to nerve damage, but (from what we currently know) this damage is generally in the brain, not in the peripheral physical mechanisms (ie the larynx/voicebox). Nerve damage to these structural mechanisms can and does cause a host of disorders, but these are of a very different nature than disorders stemming from the brain's master control area.
Damage to the nerves of the larynx/voicebox area typically result in voice disorders, which are different from speech fluency disorders. This could include diagnoses like dysphonia or dystonia, and affect the sound of the voice (breathy, hoarse, gravelly, rough, tense, strangled, tremory, etc.).
So, injuring the nerves that control the larynx should not really be able to cause a stutter, based on what we know about stuttering etiology, brain function, and motor speech processing.
However, it is possible to receive a concussion/brain injury even if you haven't been hit in the head (there's your TIL for the day!). A concussion can be caused by anything that causes the body/head to move forcefully enough that the brain "shakes" inside the skull, hitting the bones of the skull and causing damage to the soft brain. Veterans who have received serious blows to the limbs or abdomen often have brain damage, because their injury was so powerful that it literally rattled their brain around in their skull.
If I get a concussion, could I start stuttering?
Possibly? This is where we get into murky waters with this being a rare situation to begin with, and even rarer is substantive research on the subject.
What about the psychogenic kind?
This is a very, very complicated label, that potentially comes with a lot of stigma and finger-pointing. "It's all in your head." (Well, yes, all brain-related things are all in your head...)
One unique characteristic about neurogenic stuttering is that people with this kind of speech disorder are said to be unconcerned and not bothered by their disfluency. This may seem impossible, but it is indeed true! However, I suspect that this is not so cut-and-dry as the limited research sometimes bullet-point outlines it to be, and I suspect personality and temperament play a large role in whether something is purely neurogenic, or a combination of neuro-psychogenic. And, just because there has been an injury, doesn't mean there is long-term damage. But, a psychogenic long-term disability may manifest anyway, as the psyche's way of interpreting the physically traumatic event.
So, what's up with this guy's stutter?
It's certainly unusual. It doesn't seem to be the typical developmental sort of stutter, but it's not possible to say for certain from a handful of YouTube videos whether it's neurogenic, psychogenic, mixed, or something else. Or, even, that there wasn't some latent childhood stutter that nobody picked up on before!
Lynch's presence on AGT is great for increasing awareness of stuttering and showing the world that you can rock the most challenging verbal task there is, even with a speech impediment. Millions of people are watching a guy who stutters on TV, who is sending the message that it's OK to stutter. That is pretty awesome.
I do think it's important to highlight that his stuttering situation is very unusual. There are a ton of misconceptions and myths about stuttering out there. It would certainly be two steps back if the general public suddenly associated stuttering with severe physical injury/trauma, because that is absolutely NOT true in the very vast majority of stuttering cases.
So to answer my text messages, the Facebook posts, the tweets, etc...yep, he stutters. No, it's not the "normal" kind of stuttering. Yep, it's possible for sports injuries to cause brain damage. Yep, brain damage can cause stuttering. And, yep he's pretty cool, and I totally hope he continues to have such an awesome presence on the show!
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