The Case For Stuttering... And Other Speech Differences


Greater Understanding, 
More Acceptance for Differences Amongst Communicators

It's About Time...

A book published this past January promotes the de-stigmatizing of stuttering. Jonty Claypole, a stutterer himself, references the neurodiversity movement with regard to people on the autism spectrum to highlight the point that society is slow to extend the idea to people with neurodiversity of other speech and language issues, such as stuttering.

While only 1% of the population stutters, he asserts that campaigns to tackle social prejudice have rarely reached critical mass. Making matters worse, growing up, there certainly weren't encouraging role models-Porky Pig and Michael Palin's character from "A Fish Called Wanda" to name a few.

He makes a larger case for all speech and language differences, and the viewpoint that there has been an unrealistic and confining "ideal" way of speaking and communicating put forth and promoted, epitomized by slick productions and polished TED Talks.

Claypole acknowledges the devastating effects disfluency can have and doesn't deny the negative experiences; however, he asserts that there is a general lack of understanding and acceptance for stuttering and other speech differences that is perpetuated by media. "Caring" rather than "curing" is the more appropriate response, in his opinion.

It was refreshing to read Claypole's take on speech and communication. The ideas he talks about are ones I have been intimately immersed in, having been a speech/language pathologist and now corporate speech and voice trainer for the last 25 years. It is understood that there is a continuum regarding speech and language skills and traits within which we consider "normal." Using "norms" can be a tricky business. At worst, they can be used to make some feel "lesser than" or that the way they do something is not the "right" way. One could also argue that these standards contribute to quashing creativity and limiting our appreciation for all types of expression and connection, as well as for learning and growth.

As with many other obstacles in speech and language that people endure, like having a strong accent, the approach for stutterers is two-fold. The first part involves teaching techniques to become more fluent so that the individual communicates more effectively and practically with the public at large, increasing functionality and limiting social discomfort. These therapies involve physiological and psychological components. There are important issues surrounding the concept of control and the amount one has over their self-expression. Some stutterers become brilliant adaptors in finding synonyms for words that they fear they will stutter on. They also learn to avoid certain communicative contexts. Therapy involves "re-learning" how to speak; coordinating breath with voice, along with articulation; in essence, "singing" one's speech. The basic tenets need to be understood, practiced, mastered, and then gradually habitualized into every day communication. It is a process, and its course is unique to each individual. With a greater sense of control comes more freedom in one's ability to communicate and fewer avoidance behaviors.

The second part of the therapy involves developing coping strategies, as well as making appropriate shifts in perspective and mindset with regard to stuttering, and the role it plays in one's life. In the big picture, stuttering is just one aspect of who a person is. The way a person who stutters is perceived by society at large is what you need to deal with; some of the population is more educated on the issue than others. In moments of stuttering, the challenge is to continue speaking and not be swallowed by the "sabotaging" block: maintain equilibrium, move forward on the breath, with the focus on speaking your message. In other words, if you block, get yourself back into flow and move on. All speakers can relate to this situation and experience to some extent, and it can be exponentially more challenging for a stutterer.

Referring to the continuum on which language and speaking abilities and traits ride... most individuals recognize within themselves some form of a trait that is exhibited by a person on autism spectrum or who stutters, or who has Tourette's or even someone who has had a stroke. We all make social faux pas, stammer, tick, and experience word-finding difficulty at times. Claypole's book and others who are making their voices heard are positive signs that perhaps we are slowly broadening our understanding and appreciation for diverse communication styles and changing our perceptions of speech and language differences and the huge continuum that exists amongst people.

In a future blog, I'll talk about stuttering in more depth and how the obstacles encountered and experiences that stutterers endure provide valuable insight and lessons that every one of us can benefit from.