Mar 30

Stuttering and Life Lessons

stutteringOne percent of the world’s population, or roughly 70 million people, live with a speech disorder called stuttering. Males are about four times more likely than females to have this condition. Stuttering has been around since ancient times; in fact, Moses and Aristotle were said to have this condition. Other people challenged by stuttering include Winston Churchill, King George VI, Marilyn Monroe, Isaac Newton, Joe Biden, Tiger Woods, and Julia Roberts, among others.

I grew up with several family members who stuttered, and I believe it taught me the value of patience and the art of listening, two virtues that seem to be in increasingly short supply today. For one thing, people generally are growing more and more impatient. We want more rapidly loading webpages, movies on demand, instant messages, and fast food. If the highway sign says the speed limit is 65, we go 80 or 90. We are irritated by red lights. We are always in a hurry, going nowhere fast.

Truly listening to another person requires patience. Sadly, we seem to be losing that precious art of communication. Why take the time to sit and talk to someone, face to face, when we can send a text? How many times have you seen a couple or a family sitting in a restaurant and they are all on their cell phones?

Stuttering, patience and listening

If you are with someone who is stuttering, it requires both patience and the art of listening. It can be difficult to not interrupt them and try to finish their thought or sentence. You may be overcome by a desire to walk away or dismiss what they have to say.

But imagine how frustrating and embarrassing—and brave–it is for the person with this speech disorder to communicate. If the situation were reversed, wouldn’t you want someone to take the time to listen to you? These thoughts crossed my mind when I came across the findings of two new studies on stuttering.stuttering

Treatment of stuttering

Stuttering is a challenging disorder to treat. Recently two studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), shed some light on the disorder. One concerns a novel treatment approach that strays from the traditional protocol, which helps people who stutter to prolong their speech. The new Modifying Phonation Intervals Stuttering Treatment Program (a software program), in simple terms, teaches individuals to “reduce the frequency with which they produce very short intervals of phonation while speaking.”

For example, in the word “loud,” the “oud” is the phonated unit and the “l” is an unvoiced unit. An individual who stutters can get “stuck” on the “l” sound before the “oud” is pronounced. The new program helps users shorten the intervals, which improves fluency.

Mastering this approach takes patience, according to the program’s developer, Roger Ingham, a professor of speech and hearing sciences at UCSB. For treatment to be effective, individuals need to practice for two to three hours daily, six days a week, for three weeks. And that’s just the first phase of the four-part program, all of which can be done at home on an iPad.

Study results comparing the new program with the traditional method indicate that while both approaches are effective, twice as many individuals who used the newer approach were able to maintain naturally fluent speech one year after they finished the program compared to those who used the older method.

What causes stuttering?

The other new study identified the brain’s white matter as a location for the cause of stuttering. Specifically, the scientists discovered abnormalities of the arcuate fasciculus, a white-matter bundle of fibers and a critical pathway that connects the language sites. When looking at brain scans of individuals who stutter, the investigators found that nearly all of them were missing a section of the arcuate fasciculus bundle. The ability to make this discovery was possible because of advances in imaging techniques.

stutteringThe authors expressed excitement about their discovery, saying that “it opens up a lot of opportunities, not just for stutterers but for all kinds of developmental problems like dyslexia, childhood speech apraxia and disorders of coordination.” I hope their discoveries go on to help the millions of people who can benefit from them.

When I came across this research, it brought back memories of the days when I watched and listened as people I loved struggled with their speech. It made me rethink how important it is to be patient and to listen to each other.

Stuttering slows us down—not just the people who are living with the challenge but those who interact with them as well. In a way, that’s a positive thing. I’m not saying individuals who stutter should be thankful or that we should not find effective ways to treat and cure it. But if there is a silver lining to stuttering, it may prompt you to

  • Recognize when you are impatient and ask yourself, what’s the hurry?
  • Ask yourself how well you really listen to what others have to say
  • Be honest with yourself and identify if you are a good listener or if you are impatient for others to finish


Cieslak M et al. Anomalous white matter morphology in adults who stutter. Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research 2015; DOI:10.1044/2015_JSLHR-S-14-0193

Ingham RJ et al. Efficacy of the modifying phonation intervals (MPI) stuttering treatment program with adults who stutter. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 2015; DOI:10.1044/2015_AJSLP-14-0076

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