Stuttering 101

This is a topic that is at once very difficult and very easy for me to talk about, for a plethora of reasons. Many of you are already aware that I am a stutterer, or have at least noted that my speech patterns are a bit unusual. Stuttering is something that has dramatically shaped my life from childhood. As a kid and a teenager it neutered my self-confidence and social skills and drove me to become a near-total hermit for most of my teens, and has taken over six years of the hardest work I’ve ever done to overcome. And I’m still nowhere near where I want to be. This is something I would like to discuss and journal in the months and years going forward, but in order to do that I ought to establish precisely what it is I’m grappling with.

What is stuttering, and how does it work?

 The Stuttering Foundation has the best and most succinct definition of stuttering that I, personally, have read:

“Stuttering is a communication disorder in which the flow of speech is broken by repetitions (li-li-like this), prolongations (llllike this), or abnormal stoppages (no sound). There may also be unusual facial or bodily movements associated with the effort to speak.”

In essence, it is purely a speech disorder. The physical sensation of stuttering on a word is a bit like getting your shirt caught on something. I often refer to it as “getting stuck” or “hitting a block”. I know precisely what I want to say and how to say it, but the muscles will not cooperate. One of the things a stutterer learns in speech therapy is how to deploy management strategies, which cannot eliminate the blockage but do aid in reducing tension and make a stutter easier for the listener to understand.

Imagine that, whenever you walked around, there was a small but significant chance that an invisible brick wall would materialize in front of you. The wall is solid but only to you, so it blocks your way but no one else’s. Maybe you can figure out a way to circumvent the wall, or maybe you’re fit enough to climb over it, or you have a tool that allows you to tunnel through it. In any case, it takes work, and the wall impedes your progress. Bystanders are probably giving you quizzical looks, wondering what you’re struggling with and why.

The disorder does not affect everyone equally. Some stutter so rarely and so gently that most observers can’t detect it. Others stutter noticeably on every single word they say. How it manifests is equally diverse; I have met dozens of stutterers over the years and can say with confidence I have never met any two whose stutters sounded or looked alike.

Even for any given stutterer the disorder is variable from day to day, word to word, and sound to sound. Personally, I find y’s, h’s, and hard consonants (b’s, d’s, t’s, etc.) especially troublesome. Yet there have been times in my life where those sounds were mostly fine and it was vowels that I kept getting stuck on. Change is just the nature of the beast.

Stuttering is still not as well-understood as anyone in the community would like. Approximately 1% of the global population, some 70 million people, stutter. We know it is a neurological disorder that tends to run in families. Stuttering is a condition covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It can be treated and effectively overcome through speech therapy and diligent, hard work, but there is no cure.

Why don’t you just switch words, or write down what you want to say?

While that sounds like a solution, it’s really just a band-aid. There are a few problems with this approach that make it undesirable:

  1. It takes effort. I used to switch words all the time; if I felt like I would stutter on an upcoming word, I would instead use a synonym. I actually got pretty good at it, but it definitely slowed me down and made conversation harder for me. Also, some stutters will inevitably slip through the cracks, so you haven’t even solved the problem.
  2. You aren’t saying what you want to say. Sure, it works if you say “large” instead of “big,” but what happens if someone asks what your favorite movie is? Your options are now ‘stutter’ or ‘lie’. And if you lie, you have to live with the consequences. Worse, what if someone asks for your name? My name is Timothy; I can’t go around saying my name is “It rhymes with Jim.”
  3. You are letting the stutter control you. This is the biggest one. Whether it’s just not ordering what you really want at a restaurant because it’s too hard to say, or actually going by fake names: all this wears down on you. It erodes your confidence, your agency, and your very identity, replacing it all with anxiety. This is not healthy or sustainable.

Why is it such a big deal? No one really cares that you talk a little funny.

I wish that were so. I genuinely and wholeheartedly believe that the majority of people are good at heart and do not want to cause harm, but it still happens. I get weird looks daily, and awkward misunderstandings are very common. I have had peers – grown adults – imitate me and laugh. Others use it as fodder for what is intended to be friendly teasing, but actually ends up being hurtful and feeding anxieties. People give bad advice all the time; because they’re actually just trying to help, but they don’t have the specific knowledge or experience needed to actually do so.

This doesn’t even touch on what bullying stuttering children in schools regularly endure, or stutterers in certain countries and cultures who stigmatize disability or otherness more than we do in the United States. I am fortunate to have avoided both of these first-hand, but the stories break my heart.

I would say the most common reaction to stuttering that I encounter is confusion. People don’t know what it is, what’s going on, or what they should do, so they get nervous and guess. They usually guess wrong, because they have no relevant experience or knowledge pertaining to stuttering. I do my best to judge people on intent rather than actions and I always give people a second chance once I have clarified what is going on, but it is weary work sorting the bullies from the well-intentioned and misinformed.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t despair if you’ve done the wrong thing to me once or twice. I can probably tell it wasn’t malevolent.

What should I do if I meet a stutterer?

Be patient and understanding. If they get stuck, let them finish. Don’t make a big deal out of it if they don’t. If they apologize, just say that it’s okay and that you don’t mind.

Please don’t give advice. This might be hard, but stuttering is very complex and very intimate to the stutterer. They are the only one who knows what works for them. You will not be the savior to swoop into their lives and fix their problem for them with one simple tip you heard third-hand. At best, your advice will be discounted and ignored. At worst, the stutterer will try it and find that it does not work, harming their self esteem even further. A speech therapist is qualified to give actual help; you are not.

If you are annoyed by it, imagine how frustrated you would be if you had to deal with this in literally every conversation you have in your daily life.

If you find it funny or amusing, remember that that person definitely does not consider it or any of the hardships arising from it funny. If you truly can’t break the feeling, then by god, keep it to yourself.

If you feel pity, don’t. When I was younger, I felt broken and malformed, like I would never – could never – have a normal life. I have learned through experience that this is completely false. Many of my stuttering friends are married to beautiful, loving spouses and have very successful careers (some of which involve talking to strangers all day, every day). Some things are harder for me than for most people, but that’s it

Basically, have some empathy, and try to understand where this person is coming from.

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