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The subconscious is like wet clay; it
retains the impact of whatever we
press into it and then faithfully
reproduces that imprint in our lives.

Understanding People Who Stutter

So much of the life experience of those who stutter is internal, unspoken and a continuous rehearsal. As a result they often avoid many personal encounters with the expectation that most people will not wish to interact with them. They will pretend to not know an answer, lose a voice, cough or distract others attention to ease the struggles to assist the articulation in helping a word to come out. They will spontaneously switch from the exact right word to one easier to say, pronounce or lessen the struggle inappropriately to the context.

With all of the advances in our medicine, there have been absolutely no discoveries in finding an exact cure or “magic pill,” but we do know that stuttering is a phenomenon that begins with an underlying physiological dysfunction. The degree of this dysfunction, coupled with the emotional stress and struggles of being different, with its perceived stigma, leads a person who stutters to create an internal “merry-go-round” developing “coping and avoiding behaviors.” 

Stuttering is not a mental or intellectual disorder, yet the person who stutters experience so many negative reactions from others that it becomes a self perpetuating cycle of internal noise, spinning over and over again that can create temporary, yet torturous setbacks similar to driving with the brakes on. Approximately 1% of the

population stutters, current estimates put that total in the United States at around 3 million.  Stuttering is a highly variable speech disorder.  People stutter more in some situations and less in other situations.  It is often hard to figure out what causes the changes from situation to situation.  This variability adds to the mystery and frustration surrounding stuttering and makes it harder for a person who stutters to know how to deal with his or her speaking difficulties.

This can best be explained by the “iceberg theory” created by Dr. Joseph Sheehan and Vivian Sheehan at the UCLA Speech Therapy Program in the late 1980s. The “iceberg theory” according to the Sheehan’s is that stuttering is 90% below the surface, meaning the emotional baggage that is carried around to hide the stuttering and the shame associated with it. The remaining 10% of the stuttering is above the surface for all to see. If a stutterer’s goal is to overcome fear, he or she must get the upper hand by raising more of the iceberg out of the water.

There are very limited or even common experiences shared between fluent and dysfluent people.  The reason there is so little in common about the act of speaking is due to the widely different experiences, expectations, and results of speaking.  The fluent person expects to be understood and successful as they speak. The process of speech is so inconsequential they rarely remember how they said what they said.  Their self image as a communicator is formed by how people respond to what they have said.

In contrast, a person who stutters expects not to be understood.  They expect to be unsuccessful every time. This becomes their belief system, deeply ingrained into their cell memory. Their self image as a communicator is based on their inability to speak and they expect to be evaluated not by what they said, but by how difficult it was for them to say it.  Every moment of every day the internal noise replays like a recorder exacerbating the anxieties, because every time he and she attempt to share their thoughts, they know that trouble will most often lie ahead as they speak and attempt to express themselves.

It is really difficult to appreciate just how much a person who stutters is attempting to process in addition to the words of what they are truly trying to say.  A great deal of energy is expended in coping with the momentary physiological speech dysfunction.  Cognitive energy is given to gauging reactions, both internally and externally, about what’s going on at that given moment.  All the while, still more effort is being applied to coping and struggling behaviors about an awkward exchange or for baffling the listener by resorting to easier to say words than the ones the stutterer would actually desire and really want to say.


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