by Sarah Fowler
It all began in 1988 when the National Stuttering Association (NSA) pushed for the establishment of National Stuttering Awareness Week (NSAW).  Subsequently, Ronald Regan issued a proclamation deeming the second week of May as NSAW.  The NSA was one of the first organizations to encourage people who stutter to speak out, fluently or not. 
Myths about stuttering :
Stuttering is a widely misunderstood communication disorder. Before we discuss what stuttering is, let’s be clear about what stuttering isn’t.
- People Stutter Because They Are Nervous. In reality, the opposite is true. People who stutter (PWS) are nervous because they stutter, not the other way around. 
- Stuttering Is A Psychological Disorder. While stuttering is often accompanied by emotional factors, it is not primarily a psychological (mental) condition. 
- Stuttering Is Caused By Emotional Trauma. Trauma can act as a trigger for those who are already predisposed to becoming a PWS but is not the root cause. 
- Stuttering Is A Habit That People Can Break If They Want To. Many PWS will continue to do so in the future despite countless years of retraining their speech. Because of this, there has been a recent shift in stuttering therapy towards acceptance of stuttering rather than faking fluency (check out Avoidance Reduction Therapy for Stuttering established by Vivian Sisskin). 
- All PWS Are Shy And Self-Conscious. PWS may be quieter or seem shy, even if it doesn’t match their personality. There are many PWS who are assertive, outspoken, and make for powerful leaders! 
- PWS Are Less Intelligent Or Capable. There is no evidence that stuttering affects cognition and boy do PWS prove this wrong on a daily basis. There are plenty of scientists, writers, speakers, and leaders in the stuttering community. 
- Stuttering Is Caused By Bad Parenting. Way back when the term “refrigerator mother” was used to describe mothers who were “cold” to their children and were subsequently blamed for their child’s disabilities, be it autism or stuttering. This is false, however, stress in a child’s environment can exacerbate the severity of a stutter. 
- Identifying Or Labeling A Child As A Stutterer Results In Chronic Stuttering. This is still a prevalent myth in the parenting community. We feel the need to tip-toe around labels early on, but we now know that talking about a stutter does not cause a child to stutter or to stutter more. In fact, it actually empowers them. 
Okay so… What is stuttering?
Stuttering is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the motor and linguistic systems and involves learned reactivity both physically and socio-emotionally. Stuttering often begins in early childhood. There is typically a genetic component, however, it can be difficult to determine if anyone in your family has stuttered since 60-80% of children who stutter experience spontaneous recovery in early childhood. There are several factors that increase the likelihood of persistent stuttering as opposed to spontaneous recovery such as age of onset, family history, time since onset, gender, language profile, temperament, and severity at ages 4-5.
My Kid Repeats Sounds Sometimes, is That a Stutter?
We all have a picture in our minds of what stuttering looks like. You might imagine a child who repeats the beginning sound of a word multiple times (e.g., b-b-b-book) or says a whole word repeatedly. These are called part-word and whole-word repetitions. The number of times the sound or word is repeated is called an iteration. Typically PWS have more than 2 iterations in their repetitions. You might also hear a sound that’s stretched out, which is called a prolongation. Additionally, you might think of moments where a PWS cannot get any sound out. This is called a block. Blocks are almost unique to stuttering. These behaviors are deemed stuttering-like disfluencies.
On the other hand, there are typical disfluencies. These are disfluencies that may occur for PWS, but are also typical for people who don’t stutter. Think back to President Obama’s speeches. He often had multisyllabic word repetitions, phrase repetitions, filler words, and revisions (typical disfluencies). Now think about President Biden’s speeches. Biden, who is a self-disclosed PWS, often has part-word repetitions, avoids using certain words that he anticipates to stutter on, has some prolonged sounds, and blocks.
Another feature of stuttering is almost uniquely associated tension and irregular timing of disfluencies. You may also see secondary behaviors used to escape the moment of stuttering such as excessive blinking, shaking or tapping a leg, raising an eyebrow, etc. The idea is that at one point in time, the behavior helped the individual escape a moment of disfluency, so their brains automatically use it in future disfluencies. Once that behavior becomes ineffective, a new behavior is layered on top. Much of speech therapy involves breaking down these behaviors to reveal the true stutter.
To sum up: Diagnosing a stutter is based on the type, frequency, severity, and impact of disfluencies, secondary behaviors, and socio-emotional components such attitudes and beliefs.
What to do if you think your child is stuttering:
If you are worried that your child is developing a stutter, it is best to talk to a professional (e.g., pediatrician or speech-language pathologist) sooner rather than later. While anywhere from 60-80% of children spontaneously recover, it is the general consensus to adopt a “watch and see” point of view rather than “wait and see.”
Special Considerations: Stuttering and Virtual Learning Platforms
The Age of Zoom Meetings has posed unique challenges to the stuttering community. Disfluencies closely resemble “glitches” so PWS are often assumed to have a spotty connection when really they’re experiencing a moment of disfluency. In addition, the lack of full visual input from a PWS eliminates the ability to use body language as cues for when they are beginning or ending a speaking turn. Many PWS speak much less on Zoom because they feel like they don’t even have the time to begin a speaking turn. 
If you’re a teacher who is working with students who stutter via virtual learning, here are some tips :
- Be on camera and have others display their faces. This softens the impact of the aforementioned roadblocks.
- Model being an empathetic listener to PWS. Listen in a way that shows you understand the PWS and might even share their feelings or feel the same way.
- Check-in with your student who stutters. Ask if there are things you can do as a listener to make it easier for them to communicate and participate.
- Meet students where they are rather than adding more stress. Be patient with your students who stutter and help them find alternative ways they can participate.
- Consider using the hand-raising feature on Zoom. This ensures fair turn-taking since PWS often have silent blocks when speaking which don’t register in speaker view.
Additional Resources for National Stuttering Awareness Week:
- Top 10 Things to do to Celebrate Stuttering Awareness Week
- Kids Who Stutter: Parents Speak
- Stuttering Advice from Erica, an 8 yo who stutters
- What It Actually Feels Like to Stutter
- National Stuttering Awareness Week (NSAW)
- MNSU National Stuttering Awareness Week
- Myths About Stuttering
- The Age of Zoom Meetings for PWS
- Creating a Stutter Friendly Virtual Learning Environment
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