There are many disorders and disabilities that are unseen and unknown. Many misconceptions usually surround such disorders, and embarrassment sometimes follows for the person with the disability. I am afflicted with one such disorder, a speech disorder known as “stuttering”. I am not alone, there are approximately 3 million Americans who stutter and 68 million people who stutter (PWS) worldwide. This statistic is definitely just an estimate, as there are different kinds of “stuttering”, I will discuss this later.
The National Stuttering Association’s (NSA) definition of stuttering is as follows:
“Stuttering is a communication disorder involving disruptions, or “disfluencies,” in a person’s speech. The word “stuttering” can be used to refer either to the specific speech disfluencies that are commonly seen in people who stutter or to the overall communication difficulty that people who stutter may experience.
In addition to producing disfluencies, people who stutter often experience physical tension and struggle in their speech muscles, as well as embarrassment, anxiety, and fear about speaking. Together, these symptoms can make it very difficult for people who stutter to say what they want to say, and to communicate effectively with others. There are, perhaps, as many different patterns of stuttering as there are people who stutter. There are many different degrees of stuttering, from mild to severe.”
I think this definition is very thorough. Not surprisingly, what good would the NSA be if it didn’t have a good definition of the disorder they represent? 😉 Many definitions of stuttering only include the speech itself, when that is only half of the problem. Sometimes the facial and bodily contortions are actually more embarrassing than the stutter itself. These can range from facial tics when stuck on a word, slapping your leg (or a nearby object) to get a word out, weird tongue movements, and sometimes even mental freezes.
What causes stuttering? The exact cause of stuttering is unknown. Researchers believe it is caused by an affected area in the individual’s brain. I personally believe this is true, mostly because every PWS has a different brain and therefore a different stutter. Stuttering can be hereditary and the gene is usually in the males. (Although in my family it affects mainly the females!)
Different kinds of stuttering: Not everyone who stutters is a PWS. Stuttering and other disfluencies are a normal part of everyday speech. Saying “um” or even “like” is considered disfluency in speech. The fluidity of your sentence is interrupted. Most everyone stutters sometimes in their speech, sometimes when nervous or when searching for a word. Stuttering can also be a normal part of developing speech in children. Usually it is outgrown and has no lasting affects into adulthood, sometimes though the stutter will be a forever impediment. This is why when I see lists of “famous people who stutter” or how many millions of people in the world stutter, I take it with a grain of salt.
Misconceptions and Myths concerning stuttering:
– Being nervous or shy causes people to stutter. — It is usually the opposite, stuttering causes people to be nervous or shy. Nerves can increase the severity of a person’s stuttering.
– PWS are less intelligent. — Simply not true. Stuttering does not affect ability to learn or intellect.
– PWS were scared as a child, this caused a stutter. — Old wives’ tale.
– Slowing down and relaxing will make the stuttering go away. — Usually slowing down and breathing more often will help a PWS speak more fluid. This is a common speech technique used by PWS.
– We forget our names often. — This is mostly a joke, since most PWS struggle saying their names. I have often been asked the question “did you forget?” when asked my name. I believe most PWS have a hard time saying their own names because there is no way out of it and because you know the question is coming (anticipatory stuttering).
Is there a cure? This is a debated topic among PWS and those who research the topic. Many of us believe “no”, and this is my personal belief. Stuttering can be managed and coped with, but I believe it cannot be cured (at least not at this time). Little is known about stuttering and the brain abnormalities are complex. If a cure would ever be invented, it would probably have to be a different formula for everyone because we all have different brains and genes.
How should I act around a PWS? Well, we’re not a different species, so just act normal. 🙂 Patience is required when talking with a PWS. Just wait and listen. You can fill in their words, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Sometimes the word you choose is wrong and the problem word has to be started all over again! Plus this can make PWS nervous and cause them to stutter even more. It’s better to play it safe and wait a few extra seconds for us to just get the word out.
Recent media attention: MTV’s “True Life: I stutter” and 2010 movie “The King’s Speech” both give stuttering (or stammering, as it is called in England) national/international broadcasting. More people have heard about stuttering than before, and are more tolerant. “A Fish Called Wanda”, a movie released in 1988, also has a main character with a very realistic stutter.
My personal struggle with stuttering: I don’t remember when I started stuttering, my mother says I was very young and my brother says he remembers me stuttering as a child. Things like that don’t bother little kids, but I learned to be covert and became very good at it. Through Jr. High and High School no one knew I was a PWS. This was very hard on me. I was always paranoid someone would hear me then my cover would be gone. My deception worked well, however, and when I “came out” about my stuttering everyone had the same reaction….What? You don’t stutter! or I never knew you stuttered. Except, obviously, my family.
Half way through college, I was ready to come clean about my speech. I was so tired of hiding it, it can be truly exhausting! I made an appointment with a speech therapist at school. The day before my appointment, well actually the very early morning on the day of the appointment, in a panic I called and canceled it. I rescheduled for another day. Jeremy left work early to emotionally support me, we arrive…it was the wrong day! I was so discouraged, however, the speech therapist told me about a support group along with when and where they meet. What a great group it is! They are so encouraging to me! I broke down and cried my first meeting, I was so overwhelmed.
I decided I didn’t want to be covert anymore, that I wanted to embrace and love the way God made me. I will still go into “covert mode” often and I usually regret it. I will replace words I know I will stutter on with other words, even if they don’t make as much sense as the original word. I will use filler words often, and at times even act like I forgot what I was going to say so the listener fills it in for me. This will be a life-long struggle and I hope to totally accept it someday.
I thought this sign was clever….