What to Do
and What to Know
When Speaking with a Person Who Stutters
NOTES TO LISTENERS
When someone to whom you are talking is having trouble speaking
fluently, they most likely have a stuttering problem. You will probably
react appropriately by instinct, but if you are not sure what to do, you
are not alone.
Stuttering is often misunderstood and can cause the listener to feel
anxious. If you keep the following in mind, however, the experience will
be a more comfortable one for you and the person who stutters.
WHAT TO KNOW
- About one percent of adults and four percent of children stutter.
- We do not know why people stutter, but apparently it is not a nervous
or personality disorder. People who stutter are normal except they lack
the ability to varying degrees to get words out fluently. It is known
that stuttering runs in families, and research shows neurological
components are probably involved in the disorder. Stuttering almost
always starts between the ages of two and five. Also, boys are five
times more likely than girls to stutter, a gender ratio we see in other
- People generally do not stutter when they sing, whisper, speak in
chorus, or when they do not hear their own voice. There is no
universally accepted explanation for these phenomena.
- The degree to which people stutter varies widely. Some people who
stutter have more natural control over their speech than others do. And
the degree of stuttering will also vary within the individual. How much
control they have will depends on the particular situation in which they
find themselves, the difficulty of the words they must say, and how they
feel, in general, at that moment. People who stutter, universally report
having "good days" and "bad days."
- Stuttering may look like an easy problem that can be solved with some
simple advice, but for adults it is a chronic, life-long disorder.
People who stutter can achieve more control over their speech, but total
fluency is not a realistic goal for most adults.
- The list of notable people who stutter (past and present) includes:
Moses, Aesop, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and his grandfather,
physician Erasmus Darwin, Somerset Maugham, Lewis Carroll, Clara Barton,
King George VI of England, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, John
Updike, Mel Tillis, Bob Love, James Earl Jones, Bruce Willis, Carly
Simon, Bo Jackson, and Annie Glenn.
HOW TO REACT WHEN SPEAKING WITH A PERSON WHO STUTTERS
- You might be very tempted to finish sentences or fill in words for
the person. Unless you know the person well and have his or her
permission, please do not do this. Your action could be taken as
demeaning. And, of course, if you guess the wrong word, the difficulties
- Refrain from making remarks like: "Slow down," "Take a breath," or
"Relax." Such simplistic advice can be felt as patronizing and is not
- Maintain normal eye contact and try not to look embarrassed or
alarmed. Just wait patiently and naturally until the person is finished.
- Be aware that people who stutter usually have more trouble
controlling their speech on the telephone. Saying "Hello," in
particular, often presents a special problem for us. Please be extra
patient in this situation.
- People sometimes ask if they should ask the person questions about
his or her stuttering. This is something we must leave to your judgment.
But surely, stuttering should not be a taboo subject. If you have a
question about it, the person will probably appreciate your interest. It
is in your mutual benefit that it be talked about openly. You should be
prepared that some people who stutter will be sensitive about it, but if
you follow the rules of common courtesy, you should be fine.
- The person's stuttering sometimes makes it harder to understand what
he or she is saying. If you do not understand what is said to you, do
not be afraid to say, "I'm sorry, I didn't understand what you just
said." No matter how much of a struggle it was for them to say it, this
is preferable to your pretending you understood, or guessing what his or
her communication was.
- Set a relaxed pace when possible, using a moderate rate of speech
- In general, let the person know by your manner and actions that you
are listening to what he or she is saying and not how he or she is
saying it. Be yourself. Be a good listener.
A FINAL NOTE
The language we use can be very important, not just in how we come
across to others, but also in the way we think about something or
someone. We in the NSP obviously have no objection to the word
"stuttering," but we do find the word "stutterer" to be an inaccurate
and non-constructive term. We prefer the term "person who stutters" or
"child who stutters." We suggest that you adopt this habit also, not
just with us, but with other people who are different in some way.
We are sure you understand our meaning here. Stuttering is something we
do; it is not something we are. Furthermore, stuttering may be the most
apparent thing about us, but it is not the most important thing about
us. And, of course, this is true for any difference or disability we
see in ourselves or the people around us.
Thank you for reading this. If you follow the above guidelines, your job
as the listener will be well done. The rest is up to us.
THE NATIONAL STUTTERING PROJECT
The NSP is a non-profit organization founded in 1977. We have 4,000
members nationwide and support groups in 55 cities, and we can provide
you with informative brochures for parents and teachers. Please contact
us for more information:
National Stuttering Project
5100 East LaPalma Ave.
Anaheim Hills, CA
Please feel free to copy this brochure for your purposes. It is not
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