NO EASY ANSWERS
by John Ahlbach
During my ten years as Executive Director of the NSP, I have
talked with a couple of thousand people who stutter, at
workshops, in support groups meetings, and over the
phone. Depending on their need, I have handed out much
advice, shared many experiences, listened to many stories,
and directed many towards possible solutions to some of
their problems. I hope I have made everyone I have talked
to feel accepted and passed onto them a feeling that they
(we) are not in this alone. But there is one thing I wish I
cannot do for people who stutter (including myself) and that
is to say to them, "Do this, and your stuttering will no
longer be a problem for you."
I wish I could say this to people, especially the young
ones. It would make my job and my life a lot easier.
"Do this, and stutter no more, my friend. Take all the
energy, you have been putting into your stuttering and use
it on something else." But I can't say this, can I?
Sometimes I don't get a chance to say anything at all.
Once a month or so, I will pick up the phone and listen to
dead silence on the other end for four or five minutes. I've
timed it. Finally, that awful "click" will end our silent
interaction and we will both be left with a feeling of
But, hey, the good news is stuttering is anything but
hopeless, right. Yes, its frustrating and can feel demeaning,
but if understood, and confronted, it need not change the
quality of one's life. I would even say, that it can enhance
one's life experience. You know the expression, "What
doesn't kill us makes us stronger"? Stuttering is a chronic
problem, but it is also a chronic challenge which calls on
us to be more than we might normally be. I don't think I
would love my job as much if I could just say, "Do this,
and everything will be fine." I don't think I would like
myself as much either.
Please know what I share below is not meant to
replace a speech therapy program. The first advice I would
give someone, for that matter, is to find an effective,
experienced therapist with whom to work. Stuttering is a
tough nut, and must be "cracked" using multiple tools and
much support. When tackling something like
stuttering, you should have a coach, someone to
instruct you as to what those tools are, and to
inspire, listen and motivate you as well. The
right speech-language pathologist is the coach you need.
There are no easy answers to stuttering, but here is
what I would like you to consider.
THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
- You are not alone. One percent of adults and four
percent of children on planet Earth stutter (the British call it
- There is every indication that stuttering has a physical
cause. What exactly causes it we do not know, but more
evidence is appearing each year which points to some
breakdown in the neurological system of people who
stutter. It almost always starts in childhood and definitely
runs in families. My guess is that more than half of you
can point to someone else in your family who stutters or
who stuttered at one time. Boys who stutter outnumber
girls who stutter by at least 5 to 1. (This is the same
gender ratio reported for such learning disabilities as
dyslexia and dysgraphia).
- Stuttering is not your fault, not is it a product of
nervousness or a lousy self-image. You do not stutter
because you are nervous; rather you are nervous
because you stutter. There is no personality trait
shared by people who stutter that can be said to cause this
disorder. We are no more shy or nervous than anyone else.
- What seems to belie the above theory is that we do not
stutter all the time. But this just means that the systems
doesn't break down all the time. (A person with epilepsy is
not having a seizure all the time either.) It breaks down to
a different degree in different people who stutter. And
within each one of us, there is room for much fluctuation.
All people I have talked to have reported having
"good" days and "bad" days for which they could
- People who stutter don't stutter, generally, when they
sing, whisper, speak in chorus, and, mostly, when they are
alone or being totally spontaneous.
- There is no therapy program which will make you
fluent without your working hard at it. There is no easy
technique which will take your stuttering away from you.
You must make the therapy work for you by adopting the
ATTITUDES THAT HELP
Avoid thinking of yourself as a "stutterer".
Stuttering is something you do, it is not something you
are. You are a "person who stutters". Stuttering is only
part of you, not the whole of you. If you did not stutter,
you would still be pretty much the same person you are
now, wouldn't you?
Give yourself time. You have been stuttering (I
imagine) for a long time. Don't expect yourself to
overcome all of your fears and change all of your speech
Make your life situations "stutterable". Expect
yourself to stutter to some degree, especially in situations
you have found difficult in the past.
When you are having a "bad" day, hang in there.
Everyone I have ever talked to who stutters reports the same
thing. Give yourself more permission to stutter on these
days, and look forward to the "good" days which will
Never feel or demonstrate shame or feel you have
to apologize for you stuttering. You did not choose to
stutter, and it does not reflect some weakness in your
Don't feel that stuttering is keeping you back from
being whoever you want to be. All right, I would make a
lousy newscaster probably, but there are a lot of things I
am not good at. You have a right to be taken for the
person you are, and the quality of your communication, not
for the cosmetics of your speech. Fluency is only one
aspect of good communication.
You should feel that it is your responsibility to
stutter openly and honestly and to educate the people you
come into contact with about your stuttering. Do not
expect them to respond appropriately, if you are not up-
front about it. In this sense, you have control over how
others treat your stuttering. People will generally
react to your stuttering in the same way you
WHAT TO DO
I can only give you a general list here. For much
more comprehensive guide to the positive steps you can
take to get control over your stuttering and your feelings
about it, order Self-Therapy for the Stutterer
published by the Speech Foundation of America. You
can order this from us for just $4.
- Get in touch with and enjoy the fluency you do
have. Learn to like the sound of your voice.
- Talk with as much aliveness and assertiveness in
your voice as you can. Make people pay attention to what
you are saying, not how you are saying it.
- If you have (what you consider) a severe speech
block, forget about it. There is nothing you can do about it
after the fact. Don't try to make up for it by trying to be
more fluent because this will only make matters worse (you
have probably experienced this). No, on the contrary, use
the severe stuttering to give yourself permission to relax
your standards and speak more freely. Learn to accept the
worst before it happens, and you will lose much of your
- Learn to be kinder to yourself and less punishing.
- Make a start at speaking in situations you have
often avoided, and using words you fear. Do not be
compulsive about too much at once. Make an effort to
achieve this in a gradual way.
- Do you sometimes feel that someone is holding a
stopwatch and a spotlight on you when you are talking?
Well, slow down and take the heat off. You decide how
much time and space you should demand when you are
speaking. Take your time when talking. This does not
mean dragging out your words in a drawl, just give yourself
more time to get out what you want to say and pause
more than you do now.
- Advertise the fact that you stutter. If you let
people know what is going on with you, it makes it easier
on you both. Talk about your involvement with the NSP,
too, and what you are doing to help others.
- Don't seek to hide your stuttering. For one thing,
you are probably not succeeding very well at doing that
anyway. (One expert said that hiding stuttering is like
someone trying to hid a watermelon under their shirt.)
And avoid a lot of word substitutions. This is a
habit we have all gotten into at one time or another.
Avoiding certain words can make your fear and shame
greater, and makes you less able to face the future. By
substituting words we are pretending our problem does not
exist. Stutter openly and honestly s much as you can. It
makes you stronger when you do.
- Use good eye contact when talking and especially
- Stuttering is probably the most intimate thing in
your life. Learn as much as you can about stuttering and
teach others about it. People will listen to you because it
is important to you, and because stuttering is a fascinating
subject. They will respect you for your knowledge and
- Reach out to others who stutter. Millions of
children and adults need your support just as you would
- Work at reducing the anticipation of feared words.
Keep your focus on what you are doing and feeling at that
moment. Rehearsing a situation beforehand will only build
up the pressure and result in more stuttering.
- When appropriate, show a sense of humor about
your stuttering. You will be amazed how much laughter can
relax you and your listener. What you can laugh at can't
- Talk a lot, especially on your "good" days.
In general, don't measure your progress by how many
speech blocks you have. Real progress is measured by how
much you do not let stuttering stop you from being the
most loving, the most confident, and the happiest person
you can be. Don't fight, but open up to your stuttering,
let it be, and you'll find it is not such a monster after all.
As Erich Fromm said so well: "There is
nothing of which we are more ashamed than of
not being ourselves, and there is nothing which
gives us greater joy and happiness than to
think, to feel, or to say what is ours."
Please Note: My thanks to Fred Murray, NSP co-
founder Bob Goldman, and Carl Dell whose ideas provided a
lot of the inspiration for the above.
National Stuttering Project
5100 East La Palma Ave.
Anaheim Hills, CA
John Ahlbach's e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org