How to Cope With Stuttering
“When I stutter, I get nervous, so I stutter even more. It’s like I’m in a deep hole, unable to get out. Once I went to a psychologist for help. She said that I needed to get a girlfriend—to have sex in order to increase my self-esteem! Needless to say, I didn’t go back there. I just want people to accept me as I am.”—32-year-old Rafael.
IMAGINE what it would be like if just asking for a bus ticket made you break into a cold sweat and if when speaking, you often got stuck on words, repeating the first sound. Such is the case with some 60 million people worldwide—1 in 100—who stutter. They are often ridiculed and discriminated against. They may even be viewed as less intelligent because they substitute troublesome words with simpler ones that they can articulate.
What causes stuttering? Can it be cured? Is there anything that a sufferer can do to improve his fluency?* And what can others do to help?
Do We Know the Causes?
Some ancients believed that stuttering was caused by evil spirits, which had to be exorcised. During the Middle Ages, the tongue was considered the culprit. The “remedy”? Hot irons and spices! In later centuries surgeons cut nerves and muscles of the tongue and even performed tonsillectomies to cure stuttering. But those harsh methods all failed to meet their objective.
Modern research suggests that stuttering may have several contributing factors rather than just one single cause. One factor may be a person’s response to stress. Another may be genetics, for about 60 percent of people who stutter have relatives with the same problem. Moreover, research using neuroimaging suggests that the brain of a stutterer processes language differently. Some “may begin speaking before the brain dictates how the words should be articulated,” says Dr. Nathan Lavid in his book Understanding Stuttering.*
Hence, the major cause of stuttering may not necessarily be psychological, as was once thought. “In other words, stuttering isn’t affected by belief, and stutterers can’t be ‘psyched’ into fluency,” says the book No Miracle Cures. People who stutter may, however, develop psychological problems as a result of their condition. For instance, they may fear certain situations, such as speaking in public or on the telephone.
Help for Those Who Stutter
Interestingly, people who stutter can usually sing, whisper, talk to themselves or their pets, speak in chorus, or impersonate others with little or no stuttering. Moreover, 80 percent of children who stutter recover spontaneously. But what about the other 20 percent?
Today there are speech-therapy programs that can improve fluency. Some techniques involve relaxing the jaw, lips, and tongue and breathing from the diaphragm. Patients may also be taught to do “gentle onsets,” which involve taking smaller breaths from the diaphragm and releasing a little air as a lead-in to speaking. Additionally, they may be encouraged to prolong vowels and certain consonants. The rate of speech is gradually increased as fluency improves.
Acquiring such skills may take just a few hours. But using those approaches successfully in high-stress situations may involve thousands of hours of practice.
How early should training begin? Is it wise just to wait and see if a child outgrows stuttering on his own? Figures suggest that less than 20 percent of children who stutter for five years recover spontaneously. “By age six,” says the book No Miracle Cures, “a child is unlikely to recover without speech therapy.” Hence, “children who stutter should see a speech-language pathologist as soon as possible,” the book adds. Of the 20 percent of children who continue to stutter into adulthood, an estimated 60 to 80 percent respond to speech therapy.*
According to speech pathologist Robert Quesal, who himself stutters, perfect fluency under all circumstances is not a realistic goal for most sufferers. Rafael, mentioned at the outset, has not been able to overcome the disorder completely, although his fluency has improved. He says: “My problem becomes more evident when I have to read or speak before the public or when I am in the company of someone of the opposite sex who is attractive. I used to be quite self-conscious because people made fun of me. Lately, though, I have tried to accept myself as I am and not take myself too seriously. So now when a word causes me to stutter, I may laugh, but then I try to relax and go on.”
Rafael’s comments agree with The Stuttering Foundation of America, which states that “overcoming stuttering is often more a matter of losing fear of stuttering than a matter of trying harder.”
Many who struggle with the problem have not let it rob them of a meaningful life. Some have even become famous, including physicist Sir Isaac Newton, British statesman Winston Churchill, and American actor James Stewart. Others have developed nonverbal skills, such as playing an instrument, painting, or learning sign language. Those of us who speak without stuttering should appreciate the great effort made by those who stutter. So let us give them all the encouragement and support that we can.
This article uses the masculine gender because more than 80 percent of people who stutter are male.
Current theories on the causes of stuttering and appropriate therapies, while having elements in common, may not always agree. Awake! does not endorse any particular viewpoint or therapy.
In some cases therapists may recommend antistuttering devices that cause delayed auditory feedback or medication to reduce speech-related anxiety.
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HOW CAN YOU HELP SOMEONE WHO STUTTERS?
● Provide a relaxed, unhurried environment. Today’s fast-paced, high-pressure lifestyle often exacerbates the problem.
● Instead of telling the stutterer to slow down, set the example by speaking more slowly yourself. Listen patiently. Do not interrupt. Do not finish sentences for him. Pause before replying.
● Avoid criticism and correction. By appropriate eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and comments, show interest in what he says, not how he says it.
● Stuttering should not be a taboo subject. A friendly smile and an occasional kind acknowledgment of the problem can put the one who stutters more at ease. Perhaps you could say something like this: “Sometimes it is not easy to say what we want.”
● Above all, convey your acceptance of him as he is.
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“LITTLE BY LITTLE I STUTTERED LESS”
Víctor, who stuttered for several years during a time of great family stress, was able to overcome his speech problem without therapy. Being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, he enrolled in the Theocratic Ministry School, which is held weekly in every congregation. Although the school is not designed to provide speech therapy, it helps students improve their speaking ability and gain confidence.
The textbook used is entitled Benefit From Theocratic Ministry School Education. Under the heading “Coping With Stuttering,” the book says: “It is important to keep on trying. . . . If you are going to give a talk, prepare well. Become engrossed in your delivery. . . . If you begin to stutter while speaking, then, as much as possible, keep your voice and manner calm. Relax the muscles of your jaw. Use short sentences. Minimize the use of interjections, such as ‘um’ and ‘ah.’”
Did the school help Víctor? He recalls: “I would concentrate so much on what I was going to say, and not on how I would say it, that I would forget I had a problem. Also, I rehearsed a lot. Little by little I stuttered less.”