What is this thing called stammering? A misconception

What is this thing we call stammering or stuttering? How can we explain it to those who never experienced it? Why stammering is often considered a minor disorder?

As mentioned in my previous post, first comes the body tension. A presence that shadows each and every of our moves, ready to strike when least expected and strangle our words before ever come out.

Then there are the blocks caused by the stiffening of the muscles involved in speech production – what William Parry calls Valsalva maneuver in his book Understanding & Controlling Stuttering: A Comprehensive New Approach Based on the Valsalva Hypothesis. So much so that a severe stammerer could be unable to utter a single words for prolonged periods of time when faced with stressful situations. Hence unable to express himself, his basic wants and wishes. Isn’t this temporary mutism?

This is, of course, part of the very core of the stammering symptoms. Then there is the other, the visible one.

But let’s look at how dictionaries define stuttering or stammering:

Stutter/stammer: talk with continued involuntary repetition of sounds, especially initial consonants:the child was stuttering in fright.’

                                                                                                           Oxford Dictionaries

Stutter: to speak with involuntary disruption or blocking of speech (as by spasmodic repetition or prolongation of vocal sounds).’

                                                                                                             Merriam-Webster

Stammer/stutter: to speak or say something with unusual pauses or repeated sounds, either because of speech problems or because of fear and anxiety.’

                                                                                                              Cambridge Dictionary

I find these definitions extremely significant! According to them, the main features of stammering are involuntary pauses, repetitions and prolongations, but the dictionaries do not go any deeper.

On the one hand it’s understandable. Stuttering is such a complex speech disorder, still largely unexplained, and dictionaries have to provide a succinct entry. On the other, more effort could be made to give a more thorough definition.

I would suggest for example that stammering varies a lot in its symptoms both from person to person and from moment to moment. This is a major difference to other disorders, which are often fixed in time. Such a variability puts enormous stress on a person who stammers, knowing that the ‘hangman ‘ could strike any moment (see my previous post).

Hence I would add to any definition that stammering is also characterized by symptoms (e.g. muscular tension and blocks), varying in strength from person to person and in time, which could leave a person unable to speak altogether when they wish to do so.

I find this a fundamental point to make. Interestingly, dictionaries probably reflect only the widely accepted view of stuttering, namely it is not a serious speech disorder.

Logically, the next question would be: what can we do to change the view the general public holds on stammering?

Explaining stuttering to the world: the body tension

Have you ever tried explaining what stuttering is like to anyone who doesn’t?

Perhaps you have been given well-meaning advice on how to correct or cure your stammer by family, friends or acquaintances during your childhood and teen years and were unable to explain to them what stuttering was about. If this is the case, you are not alone. The suggestions I was given varied from ‘speak slowly’, ‘take a big breath before speaking’ and ‘use a pebble’ to the more dramatic ‘take it easy and calm down!’. My primary school teacher even suggested I tried singing instead of reading – mind you, I remember her with great affection!

All these people were only trying to help, but did not have a clue about the physiology and psychology of stammering. And the reason I was unable to explain it to them was that I did not have the faintest idea either!

At a physical level I felt, like most severe stammerers, great muscular tension in the areas around the abdomen, throat and mouth. It was such a tension – perceived for a period that spanned from seconds to hours –  that anticipated, and of course, caused stuttering before it occurred.

David Mitchell in the novel Black Swan Green portraits such tension as an imaginary Hangman ready to strike unexpectedly causing his victim, Jason Taylor, a 13-old boy and main character of the story, to stammer.

I find this a great metaphor to explain to “the world” what stuttering is about…

An introduction: why a new blog about stammering?

Stammering or stuttering is often represented in the media and seen in mainstream society as a mild condition, not worth much thought or consideration, except when mentioned in gags or jokes.

Nevertheless, as anyone with a severe stutter knows, it can heavily affect one’s career, social life, and relationships.

As the latest research suggests that stuttering has a neurological cause, it will probably be decades before we can see a cure.

At the same time a lot can be done to become better – more confident and effective – speakers and communicators in everyday life.

And this is what this blog is about, trying to answer some of the following questions:

  • What can we do to become better speakers?
  • What therapies, techniques are there to help us?
  • How can we become more confident and effective communicators even though we stammer?
  • How can we stand up for our right to stammer and our rights in general?
  • How can we explain what stuttering means to us to family, friends, acquaintances and those who have never experienced it before?
  • How can we make our voice heard and start changing the way people view stuttering?

This is my first post. More will follow shortly.  If you have any comments, ideas or suggestions, don’t hesitate to post them!