by Joseph G. Agnello, University of Cincinnati

I stuttered severely from the age of three years until the age of 28. What brought on some of the miraculous changes in my speech and personal character can be attributed to my therapist, Dr. Charles Van Riper ("Van") and my own efforts on most of the challenges he presented. Therapy with Van did not bring on a great deal of immediate change in my speech performance. I still had repetitions and forcing of syllables but, even so, I was extremely satisfied by the time therapy was terminated. I had earned my bachelor's and master's degrees. I was headed to The Ohio State University for doctoral work with Dr. John W. Black, the one person Van trusted to preserve the gains I had made in therapy. I had shown others, mostly Van's colleagues, that their doubts about my ability to achieve success in my chosen profession were unfounded. Most satisfying, however, was that I felt that I could move forward in my speech; I could express ideas without becoming severely "hung-up' on a syllable; I could order a strawberry soda without being traumatized by the whole incident; for me, this was as good as being "cured." Many of my teachers and peers did not understand how I could stutter so severely and yet talk on, almost oblivious to the tremendous amount of hesitations and blocks. What they failed to recognize was my confidence in being able to move forward in my speech. I was free to express all kinds of thoughts. There was minimal avoidance of sounds, words, people and situations. I discovered that, although every act of speech could be a challenge, it need not end in total failure. "Learn from failure, don't perpetuate failure." These are among Van's challenges that I try to convey in the remainder of this paper.

Prior to therapy, I had many false notions about why I stuttered. Much advice was given freely to me, yet none appeared to do much good. I felt stuttering was an unresolvable condition. In all fairness, some of the advice I received was good; I simply didn't understand it, was not ready to make use of it and, consequently, rejected it. Advice that one cannot act upon to bring about change is usually discarded. In many respects, this is unfortunate.

People who stutter frequently harbor thoughts about their stuttering, themselves, and others that seem to perpetuate the problem and prevent them from acting on good advice. Most of these attitudes, beliefs, and feelings have little validity. During my early years, I certainly had my share. When I stuttered, I was plagued by negative thoughts: I will always have this inability to talk; I stutter because there is something wrong with my mind; I'm mentally slow; I have a nervous condition; Nobody really likes me; My father is mean and embarrassed about my stuttering; I can't face up to my stuttering; I think faster than I talk; I stutter because I stutter. When I was fluent, I thought it was brought on by my positive traits: I'm a good athlete; I have a good sense of humor; I can be a good friend; I feel relaxed; I'm not thinking about stuttering. Finally, there were the "whys': Why those moments of severe stuttering? Why times of less stuttering? Why any fluency? WHY? To dwell on the "becauses" and the "whys" only circumvents the reality of the problem by perpetuating the idea of having a condition. When I thought I had a condition, I believed the solution to stuttering was simply not to stutter. It was a shock for me to realize I had a problem; I literally had to learn how to communicate. It frightened me to think about the tremendous task ahead of me: to face and resolve my problem. After addressing some of the notions I harbored about my stuttering, I felt free to try different things with my speech. I no longer felt bound to my old pattern of stuttering. I felt a new ability to move forward; a feeling of personal freedom to explore and plan my own course of action. Stuttering did not control me. I stopped avoiding speech.

My favorite story, which illustrates these points, is about a situation that occurred with Van. I believe this event was instrumental in motivating me to work on my attitude and speech skills, and made the remarkable changes in my character and speech during the five years following Van's therapy.

I was in the midst of therapy and much discussion was focused on "fake stuttering." Fake stuttering was simply to do, consciously and deliberately, what I had always tried not to do: stutter. I wasn't doing well in therapy and felt depressed over my lack of progress. One day Van asked that I go with him the next morning to help him give a breakfast speech to the Lion's Club in Allegan, Michigan. Van picked me up at 6:00 A.M. I had been up most of the night, worried that I would have to speak, and never even bothered to shower or shave. I was just dying for a cup of coffee and a doughnut when Van pulled up to a little diner on U.S. I 31. Inside, a few truckers sat laughing and talking at a table. Van and I sat down at the counter. The waiter came right up to me with a pencil and pad and asked for my order.

As I started to say "coffee and a doughnut," I began to stutter. I looked down toward the counter. All I could see was the waiter's greasy apron stretched over his huge belly. I was sure he was grinning from ear to ear over my dismay. With my left hand wrapped around my head and my mouth contorted, I continued to struggle over the first syllable of my order. I became more aware of the truckers' laughter-obviously over my predicament. I finally forced out "c-c-c-coffee" and decided to forget about the doughnut. The waiter turned to Van for his order. I was feeling quite relieved; I was off the hook! To my amazement, Van faked severe stuttering as he proceeded to order coffee and doughnuts for each of us.

I was totally shocked by the waiter's expression as Van was stuttering; it was so very pleasant. I peeked at the truckers. They were still talking and laughing but were completely oblivious to our presence. The waiter said, in a matter-of-fact way, "Never had two of you guys with stuttering. My brother stutters." Van, still fake stuttering, replied, "Yes, we both s-s-s-stutter. I am a professor, and my friend and I are g-g-going to Allegan to give a b-b-b-breakfast speech." The waiter said, "That's great!" and turned to fill the order. What I observed while Van was stuttering was totally contrary to what I believed to have occurred while I was ordering my coffee. During the week that followed, I was extremely saddened by how wrong I had been through-out the years in thinking that everyone had been laughing at me and that was the reason I stuttered. I was eager to discuss this with Van. When I came to him, I was in tears. I said, "My problem isn't stuttering, is it?" Van took a long pause, gave an affirmative shake of his head, and replied, "Now we can begin work!"

It was this discovery of my beliefs and attitudes that eventually brought about greater insight into my problem and helped me to learn to manage my speech. Questions such as: How serious is my stuttering? Is my problem just stuttering or is it not knowing how to relate to people? Do listeners really care if I stutter? Is it the way I react to my stuttering that determines how they will react? What do people really think about my stuttering? Do I have a problem listening to others? How do other people talk and listen? How do I listen to myself? Do I really hear and feel my stuttering? Should I look in a mirror or record myself to learn about what I do when I stutter? Do I seriously attend to the meaning of words? Can I change more of the beliefs and ideas that stand in my way? Should I try to stop forcing speech and "stutter easily" as Van often suggested?

Most people are kind, gentle and usually mean well. People are generally interested in what others have to say. It is a responsibility to talk with people. The fact that you stutter has very little to do with what people think of you. Even if you didn't get stuck on words, you would still be responsible for explaining yourself clearly. Speech is a social process; a public affair. To establish good relationships through verbal exchanges is a skill. You must work on speaking in a clear and forthright manner. Think clearly of what you want to say and how you will say it. Organize your discourse. Think critically about your listener: What is his background? Does he understand what I mean? Am I going too fast for him? Is he afraid of me? Am I afraid of him? Is he as attentive as I would like? What can I do to make him feel at ease? Pay attention to your delivery: Should I speak slower? Should I initiate speech more easily? Maybe I should pause after my initial sentences and give my listener a chance to process what I said; Maybe he'll respond in a way I never imagined!

As a speech scientist and therapist, I have spent many hours observing other individuals with fluency problems, and have made acoustic and physiologic analyses of "how stutterers stutter.' This has been helpful to me because it has forced me to examine my own stuttering very critically. I have been fascinated by the peculiar ways I approach certain words and how I move from one syllable to the next. Observations of my own stuttering and my experimental work have led to what I think is the most universal feature concerning the basic problem stutterers exhibit with regard to the motor aspects of speech: timing.

Timing is crucial for ongoing, forward-moving speech. Voicing must be initiated and terminated at many points during speech, and must interact in a precise manner with articulatory gestures. Movement of the vocal cords excites the air in the throat and oral cavities (producing sound) and other articulatory gestures (for example, movement of the tongue and lips) modify or terminate that sound (producing speech.) (Keep in mind that the vocal cords are also articulators.) Any articulatory action that entails easy onsets or smooth transitions from one speech sound to another, one syllable to another, or one word to another will be beneficial to forward-moving speech.

Beyond the matter of word transition, there is another form of stuttering that I believe to be prevalent but not so obvious. This is stuttering on the process of organizing thoughts, or even becoming fixed on the idea of, "I can't say that sound" during an episode of stuttering. Thoughts are organized in phrases, and one phrase must flow smoothly to another. Any effort that disrupts, discourages, or fails to assist a smooth transition from phrase to phrase will generally be identified as a stuttering block, evoking the breakdown of forward-moving speech. The breakdown is not only characterized by stuttering, but also by lack of focus on ideas and the reasons for engaging in speech communication. The focus becomes the stuttering itself -- the sound and the postures -- and the helpless notion that "I can't say it. " You must realize that this is not a valid attitude. You can speak in a continuous, forward-moving manner!

I found the following practices helpful in my efforts to improve my speech:

I believe the following developments were most instrumental in acquiring what I consider to be good communication skills:


It is not easy to work on attitudes, beliefs, and speech exercises, tasks and assignments. Sometimes it is quite painful. However, if you are consistent in your practice, both alone and especially in real speaking situations, speech will eventually become easier. Role playing with different speech styles will become fun. You might need the help of a trusted friend, a speech therapist, and/or support group. Regarding the latter, consider exploring the Internet for sites pertaining to stuttering.

In your efforts, try to move from Column A to Column B.










Fear of speaking.

Progress is limited.

Speech is negative.

Fear of rejection.;

Fear of failure .

Aversion to risk.

Compulsive effort for perfection.

Speak for discovery. Seek out speaking situations.

Experiment with different forms of speech. There are no limits to different manners of speech

Speech is positive. Talking is fun.

Assume responsibility for talking; approval comes from the content of your speech, not from fluency.

Fascination with outcome. There is no such thing as failure.

Take chances with slow, deliberate speech, with easy onsets and loose pullouts, and with fake stuttering.

Look beyond exact techniques for perfect control; increase tolerance for error; appreciate your efforts and progress.


Extensive judgment about self and others.

Make observation about self and others. Check for validity.


Written for Stuttering Foundation of America,
added with permission of the author, September 21, 1999