Awake! Asks a Speech Pathologist
Awake! interviewed Dr. Oliver Bloodstein, a noted authority on the problem of stuttering. Presented below are some of the questions discussed during the interview.
How long have you been in this field, Dr. Bloodstein?
Can a person become a stutterer by being around people who stutter?
That’s an important question because many people assume that’s true. As far as we know, there is no danger. Stuttering is not learned by imitation.
Are stutterers emotionally maladjusted?
There is a kind of public stereotype about stutterers—that they tend to be withdrawn, loners, introverted, nervous, tense—which is really not borne out by research on the personalities of stutterers.
It was once a widely held belief that all stutterers are neurotic, but speech pathology has moved away from that theory. The reason is that in the 1930’s, ’40’s, and ’50’s, there was a great outpouring of research on stutterers’ personalities. In the main, it seemed to show that most stutterers were well within the normal range on tests of emotional adjustment; nor was any particular personality type found to be associated with stuttering.
Are stutterers just as intelligent as nonstutterers?
Oh, yes! In fact, there were many studies that found that stutterers in college were many IQ points higher than nonstutterers.
Do any recover from stuttering?
There is a definite tendency for stuttering to disappear sometime between early childhood and adulthood. The best evidence we have is that perhaps as many as 80 percent of children who ever stutter stop before adulthood.
Does this mean that if a child has a stuttering problem, his parents need not concern themselves about it?
We usually say that in early childhood the chances of the child’s recovering after a fairly short time are very good. But we can’t predict at present which child will recover and which child won’t. So our policy is: If a parent is concerned, bring the child to a therapist; have the child examined and see if he can be helped. As far as we know, the younger the stuttering child, the greater the chances of recovery. If stuttering persists, the chances get slimmer and slimmer that the child will recover without help.
What therapies are being used today?
There are two aspects of therapy. One is to teach stutterers to be less fearful, more objective about their problem, and the other is to work directly on the stuttering behavior.
Now there are two very broadly different ways of working on stuttering behavior directly. One way, the much more common way since as far back as the 19th century, has been to teach the stutterer to talk differently. We know that as soon as stutterers adopt any manner of speech that’s unaccustomed—whether they talk in singsong, a monotone, slowly, or they alter their breathing—it usually results in immediate fluency. So it has been very tempting to use that in therapy, and this is, in fact, the most commonly used method today. There are some drawbacks to it though. The most serious one is that there is a very high rate of relapse after a matter of months. Some stutterers are helped permanently, but in a very large proportion, there is a relapse. Also, it forces the stutterer to have to monitor his speech constantly and often results in an unnatural kind of speech.
You said that there are two ways of working on the stuttering behavior directly. What is the other one?
The other philosophy is not to teach stutterers to talk differently but to teach them to stutter differently. This may sound strange, but there was a movement that began in the 1930’s and that is still influential. It said to the stutterer: Don’t use tricks to avoid stuttering by talking in strange ways, like in a singsong or in a drone. But, rather, modify the stuttering reactions by doing them in a less abnormal way, in a more relaxed way, in a way that resembles normal disfluency. We all have breaks in our speech, you see.
This is a more gradual method. But it, too, has its disadvantages. The major one is that the stutterer rarely attains completely fluent speech. Using this method, we’re more likely to be able to help the stutterer to reduce the severity of the stuttering than to eliminate it.
What I’m really saying to you is that there are no ways of treating stuttering today that are ideal. But many stutterers can be helped a great deal.
Does it help to tell a stutterer to slow down or to take a deep breath?
It’s hard to answer a question like this flatly because people differ so much. I was taught to believe that it was a very bad thing to advise parents to say these things to children. And from my own personal experience I believe that parents can easily make the problem worse by saying such things. We’ve seen cases in which the child was advised to take a deep breath, and the next day the child turned up not only stuttering but gasping for breath. Yet, it’s not that simple, because I’m sure there are any number of children who have been helped to overcome their stuttering by things that their parents have said in an effort to help them. So it’s a very individual thing. But as a parent, I would be very careful to not continually urge a child to speak slowly, take a deep breath, think before he speaks, or the like.
Is there anything a stutterer can do to help himself?
I think the single most important thing for a stutterer to learn is how to handle speaking situations, as far as possible, as a stutterer. And by that I mean that a stutterer should stop hiding his stuttering, should learn to make casual comments to other people about his stuttering, and should not try to pass himself off as a normal speaker, with all the pressure on him that this usually entails. He should make sure that everybody who is acquainted with him knows that he stutters, that it can be a subject of conversation, and that they don’t have to be embarrassed when it comes up.
He might even learn, if possible, to joke about stuttering. Stutterers find it so hard to see any humor in stuttering, but I knew a stutterer who, whenever he got blocked, would say: “There will be a brief intermission between words,” and this relieved the tension. Or on other occasions he would say: “There will be a brief delay in transmission due to technical operating difficulties.”
What can a listener do to help someone who stutters?
Most stutterers resent it when a listener sharply looks away from them when they start to stutter. Also, listeners help stutterers best when they respond to what the stutterer is saying rather than to how the person is saying it. And that means that listeners would do well to refrain from helping stutterers with words or from saying to the stutterer, “Take it easy.”