Written by Keely Hutton, M.S.Ed., Reg. CASLPO, Bright Spot Speech-Language Pathologist
When we tell people we are speech-language pathologists, the most common response is, “Oh you fix stutters!” Not only do we do much more than work with people who stutter (I could go on about that for awhile), I would argue that we don’t “fix” a stutter…
What is stuttering?
Stuttering has many different definitions. The Mayo Clinic defines it as frequent interruptions in the normal flow of speech (2017). We all experience some normal disfluencies: we insert filler words like, “um,” and, “uh”; We also revise our speech mid-speaking (e.g. I went to the—I was going to go to the store). Someone who stutters produces atypical disfluencies at a much more frequent rate. These disfluencies include:
Blocks (break-[break in airflow]-fast)
Someone who stutters might also experience a lot of anxiety related to speaking, and even a lot of physical tension. In some people, stuttering changes when they are tired, stressed, or excited.
Stuttering falls within a domain that speech-language pathologists call fluency. Fluency was one of the first domains to pique my interest in speech-language pathology. Back when I was a student in my undergrad at the University of Ottawa, I was fortunate to find a position volunteering at a small, private speech-language pathology clinic (sound familiar?). I was able to observe sessions with numerous clients during my time as a volunteer, but one client in particular impacted me and possibly influenced my career trajectory - a young client who stuttered receiving fluency therapy.
The therapist I was observing was using the Camperdown Program as a treatment approach. Some background on the Camperdown Program - it originated in Australia at the University of Sydney. It involves practicing speaking at a slowed rate, as slow as needed to achieve fluent speech. Once fluency has been achieved at a slow rate, the rate of speech is systematically increased, as long as fluency is achieved, until a “normal” rate of speech with complete fluency is reached. Slowing the speech rate makes one aware of breath support, of pausing, and of linking words - all important aspects of fluent speech. As an undergraduate volunteer, I was so in awe of the techniques being used, but also of the young client, whose attitude about stuttering was SO positive. This kid was, I’m going to guess, about 12 years old. They did not care about how other people perceived their speech, and they regularly spoke with their classroom peers to give education about stuttering, so that their peers understood why their speech sounded the way it did. Talk about courageous!
If are not a person who stutters, or have never spent a significant amount of time with someone who stutters, you have probably not thought about how speaking with a stutter impacts your life. I am not someone who stutters, but I can tell you that stuttering can have a HUGE impact on a person’s life, particularly if they’ve had negative experiences related to speaking. Some people who stutter have grown up absolutely dreading speaking, which is incredibly unfortunate because stuttering has no impact on a person’s capabilities! For this reason, fluency therapy is often about a lot more than just practicing speech techniques (though that is an important part). It’s also about learning to accept yourself and the way you speak, because being able to do that can have a huge positive impact on your life.
I still really enjoy working with people who stutter, providing both assessment and treatment. I find the work so enjoyable and I have been fortunate to connect with some incredible clients!
Some strategies for speaking with someone who stutters
If you’re speaking with someone who stutters, don’t react - maintain eye contact and demonstrate that you are listening through non-verbal communication (i.e. nodding, smiling). Avoid interrupting as much as possible, and don’t fill in their words or sentences, even if you think you know what they are trying to say.
The Way We Talk is a documentary made by a person who stutters, about his search for answers - what causes stuttering? Whether or not you are a person who stutters, this is an incredibly interesting documentary and I definitely recommend it (plus, I’m sure by now we are all running out of things to watch on Netflix). You can find the documentary here.
Megan Washington is an Australian singer/songwriter, as is also a person who stutters. She shares her story in her super interesting TedTalk, Why I live in mortal dread of public speaking, and discusses why singing is such an escape for her. Find it here.
The Mayo Clinic. (2017). Stuttering. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/stuttering/symptoms-causes/syc-20353572