Children and Adults Who Talk With A Stutter Are Poorly Served
Recently, I was talking with a fellow speech therapist regarding my frustration and sadness about the treatment or more accurately the lack of competent treatment for children and adults who talk with a stutter/stammer. Many school districts are not providing services for children they deem to have a mild stutter if they appear to be succeeding in school based on grades, despite the reluctance of these students to fully participate verbally in the educational process. The short film live action, “Stutterer” won the Oscar for its skillful handling of the heavy burden carried by people who speak with a stutter. I am frustrated because there is a well defined path to fluent speech and emotional relief for people who have this speech difficulty. Applying a few time honored principles can alleviate most of struggles associated with stuttering which allows people who talk with a stutter to live their life authentically while they speak their thoughts and ideas clearly and fully without hesitation in all situations.
The school policies for providing services to children who stutter vary largely between districts depending on funding for special education. Wealthy districts are more likely to serve this population than poorer districts because parents have more clout and are better able to advocate for their children and there are more resources available. Many speech therapist in the schools have little training in fluency techniques and limited expertise. If the child does not receive competent help or speech services are denied, they are left to manage this very difficult speech problem alone. It has catastrophic repercussions in their school achievement and their social and emotional development. Many of my adult clients felt abandoned and depressed during their school years and kept their pain and suffering a secret telling no one while avoiding speaking at all costs. I was ridiculed whenever I spoke. When no adult was around, the kids mocked me and laughed. I felt sad and angry. I remained quiet. I just stopped talking and avoided situations in which I was required to speak. Truly heartbreaking!
Insurance companies have decided that stuttering is a developmental disorder and therefore is not covered by insurance. Private speech therapy is very expensive and not affordable for most families living in the poorer districts. Also adults who stutter cannot afford speech therapy unless they have a well paying job.
Often, pediatricians tell parents the child will outgrow the stutter and not to worry about it. As a result, many parents do not get early intervention for the child who is struggling to talk. Children who do not outgrow their stutter report feeling like a failure. Parents and siblings who expect the child to outgrow their stuttering tend to become increasingly worried and less tolerant, and tell the child to stop stuttering or slow down when you talk. Frustration is increased with both the parents and the child at which point the child will withdraw, stop speaking or speak very little. They frequently feel “broken, abnormal and weird” and become depressed.
Psychiatrists often prescribe beta blockers for anxiety or other drug treatments. People who speak with a stutter, who do not get competent help, often use recreational drugs to alleviate their pain and suffering and to make their life bearable. Some people become addicted to these drugs. Many of clients tell me they have considered suicide as the only option because:
Life is torture, I feel hopeless because no one can help me and no one understands my pain. The speech therapy I went to didn’t help and actually made my stutter worse. I was told I would have to live with it and accept it.
The lack of education and training by professional adults about the disorder of stuttering, including speech therapists, doctors and educators, has tragic results.
The adults I work with who stutter express their childhood experiences with schoolmates, family and sometimes teachers as nothing short of pure hell. As they go to school day after day trying not to stutter, they become a master of excuses for not participating. They cut class, don’t participate in group discussions, don’t try out for the team sport they excel in and don’t talk to peers of the opposite sex or authority figures. They are afraid to ask for help on assignments so their work suffers. They often become overachievers because they would rather study than hang out with a group of friends and risk stuttering. They often do the majority of written work so they can avoid doing presentations in team projects. They are often straight A students and become excellent writers as it is their only means of self expression.
Sadly, some students in high school go to the closest mall for the day and become truant or some have reportedly stayed in the school bathroom all day faking a hall pass. They spend the day wandering about hoping not to get caught. These students become high school drop outs or flunk out of school.
Similarly in the workplace, adults keep silent in meetings, don’t elaborate on their ideas, speak very little to colleagues and avoid social events related to work. They keep a low profile and hope no one discovers they have a stutter/stammer. They essentially go underground.
The emotional impact of this speech disorder is severe in most cases and causes tremendous suffering. People who stutter often make choices that limit their potential and opportunities. Some of my clients have expressed the following feelings:
I would rather be known as a bad ass than someone who stutters. I told no one that I stuttered not even my parents knew because I didn’t talk to them much about my speech problem or anything else. I became very quiet and withdrawn. They took me a psychologist who diagnosed me with oppositional behavioral disorder. You are the first person I told that I have a stutter. Sorry I can’t seem to stop crying.
I want to stop talking because the kids laugh at me. They say “Hhhhhhhow ya dddddddoooooing”. I want to hit them but I can’t because I will get in trouble. I feel depressed and want to cry. I don’t cry and I pretend not to care because then they would call me a sissy. Sometimes, I cry myself to sleep at night. I talk as little as possible in school. I don’t tell anyone how I feel; not even my parents know I have been mocked at school. I am ashamed and in a bad mood most of the time.
My parents tell me to slow down but I can’t. I don’t know how to stop stuttering. I feel it is hopeless and I will have this speech problem for the rest of my life.
I feel I am weird and something is really wrong with me. I am stupid.
I had speech therapy and I was told I would have this problem for my entire life. I feel depressed and cry myself to sleep most nights. Kids mock me and tease me. I can’t even talk, which is a basic human ability. If I can’t talk, what is the point? I won’t be able to get a good job. It is hopeless so I don’t try to do well in school.
I tell people I am shy that is why I don’t talk much. I do extra work so I will get good grades. I have become a good writer because that is when I can express my true feeling and ideas. I don’t verbally participate in team projects. I hope no one asks me to talk. I feel scared and anxious in school most of the time.
There is a 10.0 earthquake in the room when I stutter on a word in a meeting and my mind goes completely blank and I feel like an idiot.
If my boss finds out that I have a stutter, he will not promote me or give me important work to do that requires speaking. I am very frustrated.
What I feel most is sad, very very sad.
I am anxious, nervous and fearful whenever I need to talk to someone especially if it is to my boss or in a meeting with my colleagues.
I think about my speech 24/7. It occupies my mind at all times. I wonder If I will be able to say the words that trip me up and I start planning how I will avoid a word or situation. I go to sleep worrying about the next days speaking requirements and wake up starting to think about who and what I am going to avoid and what my excuses will be.
People judge me negatively when I stutter and they think I am not as smart as they are. I feel very ashamed and embarrassed whenever I speak.
I feel I am wearing a big pink rabbit suit when I try to talk
I have worked with people who talk with stutter/stammer for the past 35 years. These are a few insights I have gained about this population of people and the speech disorder of stuttering.
- People who stutter are intelligent and often have a gifted IQ ( my experience living and working with people from the San Francisco Bay Area and I am in private practice. )
- Stuttering is an inherited trait and is part of the DNA and runs in families (can be from a head trauma or severe emotional trauma but this is rare) based on current research.
- It affects mostly boys at a ratio of 80% boys and 20% girls.
- Children can move into a fluent speech pattern if they get competent help at the sweet spot of 9 to 13 years of age. I have seen older students and adults also improve to a point of a very mild problem and at times a complete resolution.
- Stuttering has been shown to be connected with the emotional center of the brain — the more anxious and fearful a person is when speaking, the more likely the stutter will increase in severity and frequency.
- Treatment is necessary! Fluency is increased by using what I call The Four Friends; breathing, talking on the exhale, prolonging the vowels in the words and relaxing the body. The therapy needs to be intense for two/three months and there needs to be a maintenance phase that is extended over a period of one year minimum. I use the delayed auditory feedback machine with great results and a therapy program based on Shames and Florence, “Stutter Free Speech” It works!
- The emotional trauma associated with stuttering needs to be addressed and these feelings need to be processed and spoken about with empathy.The person with a stutter needs to be taught how to manage the emotions attached to the speech disorder and given compassion along with hugs. I am a big believer in hugs. Empathic listening to their struggles and pain is truly beneficial and a key component to successful treatment.
- There is no such thing as a mild stutter in my opinion. If you stutter on one word, for example, and that word is your name, it can have severe emotional consequences.
- Stuttering is mild at times and more severe at other times. It fluctuates and therefore cannot be objectively evaluated by quantitative analysis.
- Fluency can be learned and maintained with the proper guidance by a well trained and experienced speech therapist in stuttering.
- Most people view stuttering as a psychological problem related to nervousness, trauma or anxiety — it is not. Current research shows that it is an inherited trait that runs in families. Fear and anxiety become a secondary aspect of stuttering due to the speech struggles and the mocking and teasing most people experience when they stutter in their childhood.
- Stuttering is not a hopeless condition and early intervention is essential.
- The fix is not rocket science — simple really.
Request: Stuttering is not funny — please stop mocking and teasing people who speak with a stutter, give them time to speak, listen attentively and don’t look away. They appreciate your patience and support more than words can say.
School districts please evaluate these talented and gifted students who speak with a stutter more carefully. They are in need of your support and guidance during the difficult years in school. The absence of speech therapy likely has devastating consequences even with the children who speak with a “mild” stutter.
Judy Sullivan Speech Therapy -Pacifica, California