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Stuttering: Challenging the Misperceptions


An estimated 5 percent of people will experience stuttering in their lives. Stuttering starts in childhood and for most children the problem ends on its own by adolescence. But for an estimated 3 million adults in the U.S., stuttering persists into adulthood.

People with stuttering have problems with the flow and timing of speech. It can involve repeated sounds and syllables (“I would like m-m-m-more please”), lengthened consonant and vowel sounds (“that sssounds like fun”), physical tension when producing words, or pauses in speech.* Stuttering runs in families, and research has shown it is associated with specific problems in how the brain works in relation to speech.

stuttering-public-awareness-adStuttering can contribute to a person’s stress and anxiety, and stress and anxiety can worsen the problem of stuttering. When stuttering continues into late adolescence and adulthood, comprehensive treatment including talk therapy, medication, and speech therapy, can help. Although no mediation is approved by the FDA for stuttering, several studies have shown that medications may be helpful for some.Treatment for children and adults generally involves speech therapy performed by a specially qualified speech-language pathologist. Early intervention is essential to achieving the best outcomes. “Once a parent notices symptoms of stuttering they should not wait and should seek an evaluation from a qualified speech language pathologist,” notes Gerald Maguire, M.D., Chair of Psychiatry and Neuroscience at University of California, Riverside, and Chair of the National Stuttering Association. “Early intervention has shown to be effective in treating stuttering in children.” There is growing evidence that medications may be helpful also.

Many Resources to Learn and Connect

New resources and research continue to shed light on the challenges of stuttering and offer hope, understanding and connection for those living with stuttering. Among the many ways to learn and connect with others:

Many famous people have been affected by stuttering and are sharing their stories. Actor Bruce Willis was honored recently by the American Institute for Stuttering at its annual gala in New York City. Willis advised parents at the event: “It’s easy to get frustrated with a child who stutters, but believe me, the one who stutters is much more frustrated. Be patient, always listen. Offer encouragement, give positive reinforcement always.”

Unfortunately, there is still a great deal of stigma and misperceptions relating to stuttering. For example, contrary to common misperceptions: people who stutter are not just nervous or shy by nature; stuttering is not generally caused by emotional trauma; and stuttering is not just a habit people can break.

So what can you do to be respectful and helpful when in conversation with a person who stutters?

Here are some suggestions from the Stuttering Foundation:

  1. Don’t make remarks like: “Slow down,” or “Take a breath.” These are not helpful and can be felt as demeaning. (See public awareness ad.)
  2. Let the person know by your manner that you are listening to what he or she says — not how they say it.
  3. Maintain natural eye contact and wait patiently and naturally until the person is finished.
  4. Try to avoid finishing sentences or filling in words.
  5. Speak in an unhurried way, though not unnaturally slow.

* Stuttering (childhood onset fluency disorder) is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) in the category of Neurodevelopmental Disorders/Communication Disorders.

Resources and References

  • Lee, A. Bruce Willis Gets Emotional in Speech on Stuttering. Hollywood Reporter, 2016.
  • Maquire FA, Yeh CY, Ito BS. Overview of the Diagnosis and Treatment of Stuttering. Journal of Experimental and Clinical Medicine, 4(2):92-97, 2012. Perez, HR and Stoeckle, JH. Stuttering: Clinical and research update. Canadian Family Physician. 2016.


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