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What is stuttering?

Imagine you have something to say –  ordering food at a restaurant, asking for directions or help, asking a love interest out, answering questions in a job interview, speaking up at a meeting – but your body won’t let you say a particular sound.

You push for a few seconds or even for as long as a minute to try to get control of your mouth but your body won’t let you. Much like how we keep pressing a button on a remote control that isn’t quite working very well until it eventually does what needs to be done.

Stuttering, also known as stammering in some parts of the world, can manifest in the form of re-re-re-repetitions, prrrrroooollllllooooongations, and, as described earlier, b… b…. b… blocks. We move other body parts like stamping our feet, blinking, or losing eye contact in order to accommodate. This is our body’s attempt at getting ready to say the next sound we are trying to say.

All this has nothing to do with being nervous or scared. Any anxiety that we may feel is caused by social pressure to speak fluently and not looking or sounding different. It has nothing to do with “forgetting” to breathe (breathing is automatic). Stuttering has nothing to do with level of intelligence, lying, parental upbringing, nor “knowing how to talk”.

People who do not recognize stuttering tend to do nutty things like look at us funny, try to finish our sentences, give us bad grades in school, not hire us, not promote us, bully us, or laugh at us (“Did I stutter?” is not funny).

How to talk to someone who stutters

Quite simply, we just need a little extra time to say what we need to say.

UK charity organization, STAMMA, explains it best on the Talking with someone who stammers page on their website:

  • Advice. Don’t go there. Don’t tell the person to ‘slow down’, ‘take a breath’, or ‘relax’. And definitely don’t make the joke: ‘Did you forget your name?’.
  • Don’t interrupt or speak over them.
  • Don’t try and guess or finish their words, it can be disempowering and unhelpful.
  • Maintain natural eye contact, listen, and wait until the person has finished speaking.
  • Let the speaker know you are listening. Focus on what they’re saying, not how they say it.
    Stammering varies. People who stammer can have most difficulty when starting to speak and less difficulty once underway.
  • People who stammer often find controlling their speech on the phone particularly hard. If you pick up the phone and hear nothing, give the caller plenty of time to speak.

STAMMA offers a comprehensive resource including causes, cures (spoiler alert: there aren’t any), tips for tips for friends, family, and significant others, and more on the What is stammering? section of their website.

Negative language towards stuttering

Are you a member of the media, a journalist, writer, blogger, SLP? Let’s find the right words to create a world where people who stutter can live with dignity and respect.

Please check out the Editorial Guidelines Around Stuttering.

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