Stop. Think about what you want to say. Take a deep breath and slow down.
When speaking with a person who stutters, these phrases are frequently tossed around by well-meaning parents, educators, and peers. Maybe you take it a step further and try to help by filling in their sentences. (Regrettably guilty) Even among educators, stuttering is the elephant in the room. I remember being a new clinician and being terrified- What in the world do I do with this kid who stutters?! Why is stuttering the elephant in the room? Stuttering is misunderstood. It isn't talked about and so, it continues to be misunderstood.
What if I were to tell you that there is no cure for stuttering? Not only is there not a cure for stuttering, but there is nothing inherently wrong with stuttering itself.
Wow. I know. I know...I said it and I really mean it! A speech-language pathologist writing herself out of a job? Not quite. I hope you'll stick with me here as I try to share some facts about stuttering.
1. There is no correlation between stuttering and intelligence. Please, don't assume that someone is less competent or intelligent just because they struggle to get their words out.
2. Stuttering is complex. Neurological, environmental, and genetic components all play a role in its origin. Moments of stuttering vary across settings (e.g. at home v. at a job interview) as well as across the lifespan.
3. There is no cure for stuttering. If anyone tries to sell you a magical elixir- run! The fact that there is no cure is hard to come to terms with; however, stating that there is no cure is not the same as saying there is no hope. Speech-language pathologists are highly trained to provide stuttering therapy, which includes education and improving communication attitudes, as well as teaching stuttering modification and fluency shaping techniques to improve overall communication.
Because there is no cure for stuttering, the goal of therapy is not to stop stuttering. The goal of stuttering therapy should be to improve communication skills while decreasing negative communication attitudes.
So maybe you're reading this because you know someone who stutters, or maybe your own child stutters and you just want to know, "What can I do to help?"
Let's start by reshaping the way we think about stuttering. Stuttering is a disruption in speech. People who stutter often express that they feel like they are "stuck" or have no control over their speech. Instead of filling in their words, or telling someone to stop or slow down when they stutter , let's try more of the following:
1. Listen. Look the person who stutters in the eye when they are speaking. But...but... they are fumbling over their words and oh my gosh, just spit it out already! Your turn to stop. Be fully present. Be patient and simply listen. No matter how long it takes, let them speak.
2. Focus on content. Why do we talk to one another? (Alright, before COVID-19. Currently, I would talk to anyone who would listen-or maybe that's exactly my point.) We speak to express our thoughts and ideas. We speak to connect. Try to focus on communication: focus on what the person is saying more than how they are saying it.
3. Praise communication. Your child just told you about a new movie they want to see, but they stuttered a lot while telling you about it. Instead of quizzing them about their fluency strategies, try to help build their confidence by praising their communication attempt: "Wow, that sounds like such a cool movie. Thanks for telling me about it. I'd love to watch it with you!".
4. Look for signs of social isolation. Children who stutter are more likely to be bullied. Your child may not come to you and tell you exactly what is happening, but you may notice changes in your child. Maybe they no longer want to participate in social events or the extracurricular activities that they once enjoyed. Talk openly to your child about their stuttering. At the same time, don't project your feelings onto them. Some kids are not bothered by their stuttering and communicate freely. This is great! Some kids feel embarrassed or frustrated by their stuttering and need more support.
5. What you say matters. Teach your child that what they have to say matters. Let your child know that stuttering does not define them and that you want to hear whatever it is that they have to say- even if it takes them a long time to say it, or it comes out bumpy. Smooth speech (fluent) is not more valuable than bumpy (stuttered) speech. Their words matter.
I hope you found this post helpful. If you're interested in more information regarding stuttering support, such as support groups, check out the National Stuttering Association's website.
If you're an SLP wanting to learn more about stuttering, I highly recommend checking out Stuttering Therapy Resources and taking any and all coursework by Dr. Scott Yaruss.
As always, thank you for reading!
Lindsey O'Neill MA, CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and owner of Cultivating Communication LLC, located in Lebanon, Ohio.