11 Things That Guy You Know Who Talks Funny Wishes You Knew or 11 Things You Wanted to Know About Stuttering But Were Afraid to Ask.
My name is Joe and I am a “person who stutters”, as the National Stuttering Association would say. I don’t ever remember not stuttering. Some of my earliest memories involve traveling to see a speech therapist with a specialty in stuttering or “dysfluency” (for the purpose of this article, we’ll use those two terms interchangeably). While I am not a Speech Pathologist, my 43 years of stuttering on this Earth have provided me with a wealth of experience and insight in this area so I thought I’d, you know, share and stuff.
Notes: Because stuttering is such a multifaceted and intrusive beast, it’s hard to highlight aspects of it without some overlap. If you see redundancies in these items, that’s why. Also, as a stutterer myself, I can totally use that title.
1.Yes, we’ve had therapy. Most stutterers (persons who stutter if we’re being politically correct) have had some sort of clinical intervention in their life. They may be in therapy currently or they may not. Regardless, your suggestions that they seek treatment is not a new or novel idea. “Well damn. I wish I’d met you years ago. I could have saved myself so much trouble”, said no stutterer ever. See number 6 for more on commentary.
2. No, it doesn’t hurt. This is one of my favorites because it’s so ridiculous. As a child, I actually had someone with whom I was only vaguely acquainted ask me, “when you’re having one of your fits, does it hurt?” Of course the hesitations, repetitions and prolongations in my speech aren’t painful But the real question is why are you using the word “fits”? Who says “fits”? “Fits” is an antiquated term and is rarely appropriate in pretty much any situation. If you’re using it on a regular basis, stop it.
3. The unusual things I’m doing with my hands/fingers/head/face/any other body part aren’t tics. Part and parcel of the linguistic combo platter that is stuttering is physical concomitants. These go by a variety of names such as secondary behaviors, accessory features, avoiders and starters, just to name a few. Physical concomitants are behaviors that a person who stutters has used at some point in their life to get through a dysfluency. It worked once so we used it again. And it kept working right up until it didn’t. But by then, it had become a habit, something we do automatically. We were still doing this weird, off-putting thing but the benefits were gone. So, consciously or unconsciously, we moved on to something else. Flaring our nostrils no longer works so we’ll move on to swaying like a blind piano player. That doesn’t cut it anymore so we’ll pinch ourselves or scrunch our toes or blink our eyes. Some of these we’re aware of and some we aren’t but all are part of the deal. Yes, we’re aware it can be hard to look at. By the way, we’re also aware how long our dysfluencies seem to our listener.
4. Stuttering is exhausting. While not painful, as mentioned above, stuttering can wear you down. When every syllable of every sentence is a grinding, muscle twitching effort, which it can be for a severe stutterer, it’s incredibly physically taxing. It can also be a mental workout. When you’re speaking you focus on content, tone and word choice. When we speak, we’re focused on those same things but we may also be thinking about which words to avoid, remembering to make eye contact, keeping the physical concomitants to a minimum and a host of other things. Emotionally, stuttering is also a trying experience. Think of the most embarrassing humiliating moment of your life. Now think of living your life knowing that you’re going to reexperience that event multiple times during the day. You don’t necessarily know when or where it will happen but it will. Stuttering takes a toll.
5. No, I will not tap my finger. There is more on commentary and suggestions below but one of these warrants an entry of it’s own on this list. One of the most common suggestions we get from listeners who are (mostly) trying to be helpful is some form of metering. Metering refers to the pairing of a physical behavior with a dysfluency for the purpose of helping the stutterer get past the disruption in the flow of speech. Metering is a form of physical concomitant like those mentioned in item 3. The difference is metering occurs on every word or syllable, dysfluent or not. The most common forms of metering involve the tapping of a finger or foot as each.word.is.spoken. Metering, like all secondary behaviors, works at least once. And, like all those listed above, works beautifully right up until it doesn’t. Often, at this point, this metering behavior becomes more dramatic. What had been a tapping of the finger on the table becomes firmer, louder smack of the table with the hand. Before you know it, you’ve got a very disruptive, off putting behavior and a bruised table.
6. Commentary is not welcome. There are several types of listener commentators. We’ll examine two here today. The first is the Suggester. The Suggester is a person who has decided, during the conversation, that the stutterer is clearly not aware of the myriad options available to them to communicate more effectively and would clearly benefit from their input. Common phrases from the Suggester include “have you tried therapy?”, “have you tried tapping while you speak” (see the previous entry for more on why this is a bad idea), “my brother/sister/cousin had that and s/he grew out of it by high school. You will too”, “take a deep breath”, and “think about what you want to say before you say it”. While oftentimes the Suggester is well-intentioned, these suggestions are not welcome and not helpful. By far the most common suggestion deserves a note of its own. “Relax.” Thank you kind sir/madam. I had no idea I could chill the hell out and this would all be over. If you take nothing else away from this piece, hold onto this: telling a stutterer to simply “relax” is disrespectful, patronizing and asinine. Don’t do it. No, really. Don’t do it. I see you thinking about doing it. Stop it. Let’s move on to the next type of commentator.
The Analyst/Complimenter. The A/C believes their input is somehow valuable to the person who stutters or to the interaction in general. The A/C differs from the Suggester in that there is no real purpose to their commentary. As the name suggests, comments from the A/C are either analytical in their nature or complimentary. Examples of analytical comments include “looks like f and s words are the hardest for you”, “my brother talks like that”, “did you have a lot of ear infections as a child”, “that must be hard for you”, Etc. Not OK and not beneficial. Examples of complimentary comments include “you’re doing a lot better than you used to”, “ I admire you so much”, “you’re so brave to have a job where you talk to people”, “you’ve improved a lot”, Etc. To sum up, comment on what I’m saying, not how I’m saying it.
7. Having said that, its OK to be curious. Stuttering, common as it is, is not something one runs into everyday and is not something with which the average person has experience. It may be OK to come and talk to me about stuttering. This is obviously not true for every person who stutters and you need to exercise good judgment in terms of time and setting and decide if this is someone who would be open to that kind of discussion. For me personally, I’d rather we talk about it than not address the elephant in the room.
8. There are no stuttering pills we can take. There is not a generally accepted pharmaceutical solution for stuttering. But…there are some advancements in this area. Medications such as Risperdal and Zyprexa have shown some efficacy. More research on these is being conducted as we speak. It is pertinent to note here that in some situations, benzodiazepines have been successful in decreasing anxiety and leading to more fluency. Personally I do not recommend these as they can become addictive and appear to lose their effectiveness with continued use.
9. I’m not a nervous person. Stuttering is (generally) not a nervous or anxiety based disorder. Stuttering is a phonetic transition disorder that appears to have a neurological etiology and a genetic component. Stuttering is however, very prone to exacerbation by emotional factors, anxiety in particular. This anxiety is often a product of repeated instances of embarrassment and humiliation experienced by stutterers at one or more point in their lives. Needless, to say, we come by it honestly. To reiterate a prior point though, if you say, “relax” or anything, similar, we have a burning urge to punch you. So, you know, keep that in mind.
10. Our speech is not an indicator of our intellectual capacity. There is no correlation between intelligence and stuttering. This is one that I have particularly strong feelings about. As a moderate to severe stutterer, I have had to endure my share of low expectations, people speaking down to me and general patronizing. I have spent a considerable amount of time in any job demonstrating through my performance that I am not as dumb as bag of hammers.
11. There is something you can do. Your commentary doesn’t help. Your suggestions as to how I should deal with my stuttering do not help. What you can do is listen and make it clear you understand what I’m telling you. This is something we should do for each other all the time. This is part of what mental health professionals call Active Listening. You can also be patient. Very rarely do the extra moments you may spend listening to us impact your schedule in any measurable way so relax, listen and be present.