Did I Stutter?

October 19, 2017

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Posted in: Clay Center TV, Parenting Concerns

Do you remember what your mother used to say when you stopped, all of sudden, and yanked off your sneakers with a kind exaggerated urgency?  She’d wait to see what you were doing, and then when you turned that sneaker upside down and the teeny-tiny pebble fell out onto the sidewalk, she’d smile and tell you something about how the little things always bother folks more than anything big.

In other words, things don’t have to be horribly debilitating to really bug you.  Things just have to be persistently troubling.

Stuttering, however, is not one of those things.

So why begin the post by telling you what stuttering is not?

Because I explicitly want you to understand that stuttering is not a pebble in your psychological shoe. Lots of people think that it is, but they’re wrong.  I’ve heard stuttering essentially discounted by otherwise caring and empathic adults and kids.  After all, stuttering is still utilized as a potent and reliable comic foil.

There’s Porky Pig.

There’s A Fish Called Wanda.

There’s that famous episode of The Office.

Stuttering is a go-to comedic stunt, and that makes folks who stutter a little reluctant, sometimes, to make a big deal out of the experience.

In fact, while Porky Pig stutters in the embedded clip above, he’s singing.  It turns out that singing helps some people not to stutter, but that’s not a hard-fast cure.  It certainly doesn’t help Porky Pig.  For others, speaking in a feigned accent also helps. But singing or faking an accent understandably draws attention to the stuttering individual in other ways.  The treatments for stuttering are a varied as are the different kinds of stuttering themselves.

Imagine not being able to get a word out of your mouth.  Imagine knowing the word you want to say—picturing it or even hearing it in your head—and still the word just won’t emerge.  You start the same word over and over, and the more you start, the more uncomfortable folks around you become.  They lean in, or they lean away.  Some might glance furtively at their watches.  Often people finish your sentence, and my friends who stutter say that this tendency we have to finish the sentence for people who stutter can be even more maddening than the stuttering itself.

Did you watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer?

If you didn’t, you absolutely should, but that’s the subject of a different kind of article.  My point in mentioning the show is to note that Nicholas Brendon, the actor who played the sometimes goofy and always endearing Xander Harris who is always at Buffy’s side, has suffered his whole life from significant stuttering.  His lines were fluid and funny and his heroics were as clumsy as they were effective.  It turns out that he channeled much of the insecurity of his character from his experiences dealing with his stutter.  In 2001, he told USA Today that when he was a little kid, “the more anxious and embarrassed he became, the worse” his stuttering became.  He goes on to note that despite the best intentions of those around him, he “couldn’t help feeling” that he “was a moron.”

Have you ever heard Nicholas Brendon interviewed?  This guy is smart.  There’s no crime in not being smart, but the tragedy here is that because of his stuttering, Brendon felt horrible about his very ability to think despite his intrinsic and easily accessed intellectual chops.

This is a lengthy introduction to the demon of stuttering. I’ve seen too many people, even people in my profession, just not pay attention to the problems stuttering can cause, so I want to make sure that this piece accentuates the suffering of those who have this challenge.  Sure, A Fish Called Wanda is funny, and yet I have a friend who stutters and who just can’t watch the movie.  That’s how painful stuttering can be.

Stuttering, as described by the National Stuttering Association, affects about 1% of the US population.  That’s more than 3 million people.  It is defined by the American Speech, Language and Hearing Association as disruptions in the production of speech sounds, also called “disfluencies.”  We all do this to some extent.  Most of us interrupt our speech with “fillers” – words like “um” or “uh.”  But people who stutter sometimes do this a lot, and the more anxious they get, the more they turn to these fillers or to parts of the word that they’re trying to say in their attempt to get the stuck words out of their mouths.

There are many different types of stuttering, and the neurological cause is not entirely known.  Importantly, the vast majority of those who stutter are otherwise completely healthy.  The stigma from stuttering emerges because people hear the stutter and think otherwise.

This blog isn’t about making sense of stuttering, and that’s largely because no one has made complete sense of stuttering to date.  It’s definitely neurological, but we don’t know what causes it.  It can be heritable, but it doesn’t have to be.

We do know, however, that it is amenable, sometimes very amenable, to early intervention.

Stuttering usually has its onset in early childhood.  That’s when you want to get help.  Start with your pediatrician or your school.  In fact, parents sometimes first hear about stuttering from schools, especially since early stuttering can be made worse by the anxiety that school affords.  This doesn’t mean that anxiety causes stuttering – it just means, as with lots of challenges, that the challenge gets worse with anxiety.  Either the school or the pediatrician can make a referral to a speech and language expert.  If psychiatry or psychology gets involved, it is usually to help decrease the ambient anxiety.  As we mentioned, psychological problems are almost never the root cause for stuttering.

Unlike the complexity of understanding stuttering, the correct action for parents is relatively simple.

Get help early.  Do your best not to finish those hard-to-finish sentences unless your child has asked you to.  Reassure and seek expert assistance.  Not everyone who stutters can became a vampire slayer like Nicholas Brendon did, but who knows what’s possible once the right kind of help is in place?

Steven Schlozman

Steven Schlozman, M.D.

Steven Schlozman, M.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is als...

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