Sunday, March 12, 2017

Stuttering and the highly sensitive child (HSC)

Is hypersensitivity a factor in the onset of stuttering? More than 80% of people who stutter are HSPs (Highly Sensitive Persons), yet this fact is seldom discussed in stuttering groups - probably because it's not politically correct to talk about psychological issues in stuttering. So, a few words on HSPs, particularly highly sensitive children (HSC), as this personality trait is probably a major factor in a child beginning to stutter due to subconscious repressed emotions.

I would guess that a hypersensitive, introverted child is more likely to repress his unacceptable emotions, thereby risking the onset of psycho-physical ("mindbody") issues such as stuttering. Also, research by Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard University, on what he called "inhibited" children found that they were more stressed and that their vocal cords were more tense compared to other children. This last point is crucial, as it gives substance to the hypothesis that stuttering, i.e. word / sound repetitions, results from vocal-cord muscles that "freeze" / "lock" due to tension. 
About 1/5 of the human population is hypersensitive, meaning that their sensory system (touch, sounds, etc.) is more finely attuned than others. On the upside, they tend to experience life more intensely and deeply - and many great artists, thinkers and other achievers are or were HSPs. On the downside it is easier for them to be overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, stress and life in general. Their fight / flight / freeze response is stronger, and anxiety, particularly social anxiety, is common. They are usually, but not always, introverts and shy - though they can overcome shyness - and they take longer to make decisions.

"Orchid children"

HSCs have been described as "orchid children". Like orchids, they can develop into extraordinary individuals if their sensitivity is taken into account. Hypersensitivity is an inherent trait and society should not try to change them, as they are not "abnormal". They tend to prefer quiet, slow, solitary and structured environments and value privacy, using "me-time" to reload their batteries, and they avoid noise and crowds, often wanting to stay at home rather than going out. Too many extramural activities should be avoided, and they prefer smaller parties rather than large gatherings. They like to be prepared for any change in routines, and prefer predictable outcomes rather than unpleasant surprises.

Stressful sports do not work for these children - they perform best in more solitary sports such as bicycle riding, long-distance running, rock climbing etc. Oral exams, asking questions in class etc. can be a nightmare for them.

The above facts are based on the advice of a leading occupational therapist here in South Africa, and I hope that it will assist caregivers in helping their highly sensitive children reach their full potential and perhaps reducing or even eliminating stuttering. Being an HSP myself I can attest to the value of these tips!

For more information on HSC, check out the following bestseller by the famous psychologist Dr Elaine Aron: The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them (2002).


  1. It appears I've always been a HSP, but I never thought about it. I just loved reading about it. Maybe because when I read about it I kind of start observing myself from outside, and it feels much better than being inside and not understanding what's going on. Great topic, thank you for writing about it!

  2. I'm glad that you liked it! Kind regards.