Quick Facts About Stuttering

James Earl Jones, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Marilyn Monroe. What do these people have in common besides being famous? They are all people who stutter. Stuttering is present in every country and in every cultural group in the world. In the United States and Canada about 1% of the population stutters. That's over 3,000,000 people. Stuttering begins in childhood, usually between the ages of 2-5 years. It's about three times more common in males than in females. Do you know anyone who stutters? What is stuttering anyway, and how does someone start to stutter? What would you do if you were talking to someone and stuttered? Keep reading to find some answers to these questions about stuttering.

What is Stuttering, Anyway?

Lots of people think that they have stuttered from time to time, but stuttering is much more complex than occasionally repeating or stumbling over words. Stuttering does not mean that the person is excited or cannot think of the word they want to say. It is an involuntary behavior and people who stutter cannot help it. A prominent speech pathologist defined stuttering as "...when the forward flow of speech is interrupted by a motorically disrupted sound, syllable, or word, or by the speaker's reactions thereto" (Charles Van Riper, 1982).

Many people think stuttering only involves repeating words and syllables, but it involves much more than that. Other behaviors and features of stuttering include:

  1. Universal, involuntary behaviors: repetitions (bu-bu-baby), prolongations (baaaaby), and blocks (-------BABY).
  2. Secondary behaviors: fillers/interjections (um, uh), facial grimaces, pitch rise, and tremors
  3. Features that cannot be heard or seen: fear, anger, relief, embarrassment, frustration, and guilt.
  4. Subconscious, automatic behaviors: breathing abnormalities (shallow, rapid), rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, sweaty palms, flushing of the skin, eye blinking, and dilation of pupils.

Stuttering is a serious issue that many people are faced with every minute of every day.

What causes stuttering?

The cause of stuttering is still unknown. In the past, people believed that stuttering was caused by nervousness, bad parenting, genetics, inability to coordinate the speech muscles, psychological problems, and talking too fast. Today current evidence tells us that stuttering has a large genetic component. This inherited genetic factor may cause the speech pathways in the brain to be less efficient. The inefficiency of the pathways makes it difficult for the child to meet fluency demands by getting their words out quickly. Genetics may also influence the temperament of the child, which makes some children react negatively to their own early stuttering behavior. Combined, these elements may increase the likelihood that a child will stutter.

The tendency for a child to persist with or recover from their stuttering may also be genetically determined. Some children outgrow stuttering on their own, possible because their brains reorganize the speech pathways or because they eliminate their negative reactions to their behavior. However, some children may continue to stutter into adulthood, possibly because they maintain inefficient brain pathways and a reactive temperament. Boys may be genetically preprogrammed to persist in their stuttering more than girls. The cause of stuttering remains a mystery. Researchers are still uncovering information on this ancient disorder.

How should people who stutter move through their episodes of stuttering?

Stuttering has no quick and easy solutions, and it has no cure. It takes lots of hard work and practice to control the involuntary stuttering behaviors. Some stuttering remedies focus on having the person speak in a novel manner; for example, talking in time to rhythmic movements of an arm or talking in a monotone. These offer only temporary solutions. The novel mannerisms can become habituated, and then they no longer help the person control their stuttering. Slowing the rate of speech, relaxation techniques, and learning to smooth out the involuntary stuttering behaviors are some things that can help the person overcome the stuttering. Eric Bourland, a moderate-to-severe stutter, offers some strategies that have worked for him: don't conceal your stuttering, don't substitute words, stick with the word you are trying to say, speak slowly, and stutter on purpose. He also suggests that when dealing with difficult people, don't lose your calm, say what you meant to say and go on about your day. You can find more of his strategies on his webpage called "Guerrilla Stutterer."

What should you do when talking with a person who stutters?

Stuttering can present an uncomfortable situation for both the stutterer and the listener. Hearing someone stutter may make you want to laugh, speed the conversation up, or even leave the situation. Here are a few simple guidelines that can make the situation easier for you and the stutterer.

  1. Listen to the content of the message, not how it is being said.
  2. Let the person know you are listening through your body language and natural eye contact.
  3. Don't fill in words or finish sentences for the stutterer. You don't know for sure what they are going to say, and no one likes to be interrupted.
  4. Don't tell the person to slow down, take a breath, or relax. These don't help in the long run and make the problem seem simpler than it really is.
  5. Slow down your conversational speaking rate, but don't go so slowly that you sound unnatural. Slowing down lets the person know that you have time for them.

Remember to treat the person who stutters with the same dignity and respect that everyone deserves.


Authors: The CSD 4200 class of 2002 at the University of Minnesota Duluth.



Posted January 17, 2003