Stuttering and fitting in

So yes, the International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference is over, having ended on October 22. But I’ll still post about it if I want to! Today’s post is More Than Just Stuttering Pride by Elizabeth Wislar.

She talks about speech therapy in school:

…I definitely received a message that my stutter was bad and something that should be fixed. I felt like a constant failure because I could not seem to apply the techniques I learned in the outside world.

Thinking back on my own experience with therapy in school, I realize now how much everything was also at odds with each other. And how much “fitting in” was important:

1. My class participation was crap because I didn’t want to raise my hand and stutter, but my friends all laughed when I made jokes on the side fluently.

2. My class participation grades were good despite occasionally stuttering when having to give an answer.

3. My speech outside of school was still stutter-ific despite going to therapy. I didn’t understand that therapy was just that — therapy — and not meant to be a permanent fix. So I thought that with enough therapy it would just go away.

Elizabeth speaks about going to the NSA conference and getting hoarse there from speaking so much. I do the same. Nobody judges! Nobody’s in a hurry! They want to listen to what I have to say. It really is liberating.

And better yet, she speaks about how stuttering is something that goes against the grain of what is normal — so let’s be disruptive and make people uncomfortable.

I want to allow blocks to go on longer than I have to if I see the person I’m talking to looks annoyed or put out. Or better yet, I want to let blocks or repetitions go on longer because I find them enjoyable. Isn’t true subversion finding power and pleasure in the things society finds defective? Let’s do it.

This is who we are, and this is how we speak. I need to be better about this, I think. Just letting some blocks or repetitions go on for a little longer. Make it obvious. Do it often enough to become even more comfortable with the sound of my stuttering voice.

Your virtual stuttering reality

The other day I mentioned stuttering and speaking and Google Glass. There is some recent research on this, and Shelley Brundage talked to Stutter Talk recently about it.

There were no significant differences in the %SS across audience conditions, suggesting that the frequency of stuttering is similar in virtual and real world conditions. These findings suggest that similar responses occur after speeches to virtual and live audiences.

You have to listen to this interview. It’s great. They discuss safety, control and repeatability with regards to virtual reality usage. Also how this technology can be used in therapy. It’s probably still a few years (hopefully months) away, but it’d be nice to see more customizable virtual reality apps for the masses. Of course there’s Google Cardboard which is a good start…(I’m tempted to order this).

How else can this help those of us who stutter? Well, a lot of what I’ve been seeing on Facebook groups lately is along the lines of, “I have an interview tomorrow, what should I do?”

I suppose you could find a friend to practice with. But there’s a lot of effort in that, and the interaction may not be helpful. I know there are a lot of us who become very comfortable with close friends and find we don’t stutter with them as much. (And yes, it can sometimes be the total opposite). Also, how you react to a smiling man may not be the same as a frowning woman.

But if you had virtual reality at your disposal, you could run a bunch of different scenarios in the week leading up to the interview. The thing that I’ve found about interviews is that you tend to get better at interviews the more you do them. But the problem is getting the interview in the first place. There’s applying, waiting, e-mailing, more waiting, maybe a phone screen, more waiting, an e-mail, more waiting, and then the buildup to the big day. That’s a lot of time to worry yourself into a total mess.

The paper talked about speaking in front of groups. You don’t always have days and days to prepare yourself for a presentation. Maybe a day or two. And sometimes you’re put on the spot. So what about practicing at home? You go to work and see your boss give a presentation. Go home and practice it yourself. If you did that every day for a half hour, some of the barriers to public speaking would be removed. Too often when we’re put on the spot we forget about everything — breathing, pacing, eye contact, hand movements — and just focus on trying to get those words out in some coherent fashion. Virtual reality would allow us to practice all of these things.

Even at the most basic level — using the phone — virtual reality would be useful. All I’d need to see is an image of a phone with that “mute” light on and off. And someone asking who’s on the call. I’d really love to be able to reprogram my brain to get past this (assuming that’s possible).

My Kind of Stuttering

I don’t think I’ve ever really mentioned on here what kind of stuttering I do.

Here’s a handy chart that lists four of them.

I’ve almost always done prolongations and blocks. I’m not sure if I really do repetitions or not — I mean, if I’m trying to say a word, get the first syllable out and then get stuck on the second (a block), sometimes I’ll try the first syllable again. I might do this a few times.

I was just thinking … what’s worse, a prolongation or a block? Toss up, really. They both equally suck, I think. With a prolongation you just never know … when it’s going to end. And it’s the only thing you can think about. And the listener doesn’t know when it’s going to end (although who cares what they think, right? Right!). For me at least if I prolong on one specific sound during a conversation, it’ll get prolonged every single time during that same conversation. And if it’s a word I can’t avoid, it’s even more annoying.

For the blocks, they just create confusion. There’s a flow to every conversation. Until there’s not. And then there is! And then there’s complete silence for who-knows-how-long followed by a loss of eye contact, a change of subject, and a wondering of how many hours until lunch.

For the phone, (if given the choice … ha!) I’d rather have a prolongation than a block. At least then the listener knows you’re trying to queue something up. In person, I’d prefer a block because then the person can see you’re trying to say something.

The thing about insertions to me is that, well, don’t fluent people do this, too? I don’t think I use this as a stuttering/covert tool, really. I just use it to let someone know that I’m thinking. And that something is going to come out.

I think I’m going to have to pay really close attention over the next few weeks for these things and see what I’m really doing as far as insertions.

Stuttering Research

So the first workshop after lunch at the NSA Annual Conference on the second day was What’s Hot in Stuttering Research. Obviously this interested me because uh, well, how are we doing on a cure? No? That’s ok. I’m having a good time at the conference. We can do this again next year.

This workshop was put on by Dr. Ratner from the University of Maryland.

Instead of trying to write out exactly what Dr. Ratner talked about, I’ll just list points:

1. No cure!

2. Scientists are identifying genes that play a role

3. It’s definitely genetic. There’s not an outside influence. (so, no, I didn’t get my stutter from watching too much Porky Pig)

4. The therapist matters more than the technique

(I thought that no. 4 was interesting in light of no. 1. That is, if you’re a parent, you’re not going to get a straight-up cure for your child. But given the right therapist, you can certainly make your child more confident and comfortable with their stutter.)

I need to e-mail Dr. Ratner and get the presentation that she put on. (There was much more she said that I didn’t quite write down fast enough).

She also mentioned going to and searching for “stutter*”. That will show the most recent papers written on stuttering. I did this a little today — you have to really look through it all carefully, though. She also said you could just e-mail the author and they would likely send you a copy of the paper if it’s not available. I will also try to do this. There are some free papers available that I did download that look very interesting.

One paper she talked about was from Dr. Change from the University of Michigan. Here is a link to the abstract. I haven’t read through the paper (note: I’m definitely not a scientist, just an engineer). But I will soon.

I would also encourage you to check out Tom’s site, the Stuttering Brain, if you find an older research paper. There’s a chance that he’s seen it already and has gone through it.

Given the research that is out there, there’s a lot more for me to look through and comment on. But I just wanted to write about the workshop itself that was very, very interesting.

Stuttering through Lunch

Back to talking about the NSA Annual Conference.

Before going to a workshop on What’s Hot in Stuttering Research, I went to … lunch.

There was a First Timer’s lunch, so I grabbed a bagged lunch and headed into the hall. Round tables. Chairs. Strangers. Flashbacks to getting seated at weddings. Having to introduce myself to strangers. Danger! I was already halfway into the room, so no turning back. Wait! You’re here to meet people! No, no! Where’s someone I know? Anybody? I looked around. I was still walking. I was being told where to sit and …


Next to a stranger. Other strangers at the table. Someone I know seated next to me! Bonus!

(This is the kind of push-pull that I went through at the conference every day — I’m here to stutter and meet new people. But I’m also holding on to my old ways and fears.)

Alright, let’s get through the introductions. Not all the seats were filled, so that was good. Less stressful at least. The person to my immediate right was not someone who stuttered. She was a speech language pathologist. Well now, this is an interesting change of pace.

While talking to her, I was paying much more attention to my speaking and stuttering. I wasn’t stuttering as much. I wanted to “reset” things after all the stuttering I was doing over the past few hours. Need to keep moving on! Forget the stutter! I talked mostly about my stutter, growing up with it, the job I had now, how awesome the conference was going so far.

She told me about the kind of work she did in the southwest — working at a school district. One thing she said really struck me though — that they needed to do a plan for each student. And then measure progress against that plan. But then … if there’s no cure for stuttering, how could they measure progress?

I haven’t spoken to a lot of SLPs at all (remember, just coming out with all this) so I’d be very interested to hear how this works. I mean, I can see how confidence could increase, how some situations could get better (me ordering at Subway and Starbucks, for instance) but sometimes you just have a bad day, right?

I also wonder if any of this was in play when I did speech therapy during elementary school and high school. Did they figure I was getting better or figure I wasn’t having any serious school issues … so … no need for further therapy?

Senior Year

In either junior or senior year, I started going to speech therapy again. This was with the school-provided therapist. She was different than before.

I don’t remember much of what we talked about — I think we probably practiced a bunch of words, said some sentences …

But what I do remember very, very well was that she taught me about needing air to talk. For anybody who doesn’t stutter, this is probably not earth-shattering. But for me, it was quite the revelation.

There are often times when I can’t say anything despite trying and trying. Not even a sound comes out. While this is going on, air is slowly escaping. And I need that air to speak. And the less of it there is, the less chance that I’ll be able to say anything. So what did I learn? She said to imagine a balloon that’s filled with air. Then, instead of just letting go and letting the air fly out, slowly let it come out. Hold the opening at a constant size. This is how to breathe, and this is going to help in speaking.

Does it?

Oh yes. It’s the single best thing I can do for my speaking. But I still stutter. Why? Because it’s hard to remember to breathe! No, seriously. I don’t practice this as much as I should. There are often times I’ll just rush into something, run out of air and then be stuck without a sound. Other times I think to myself — breathe — take a breath, a deep one, clear your thoughts, and slowly let out the words. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. To me talking faster (or wanting to talk faster) can sometimes result in more stuttering because of air flow issues, not the words themselves.

But of course since stuttering is stuttering, speaking slowly doesn’t always help. Even if I have the air, I’ve thought of a word I need to say, and then realize I can’t say it. I feel I can’t say it from a few words off.

Senior year definitely had my confidence peaking though. Not only had I learned about this technique, but my classes were easy, friends were great and college was just a few months off. And since a bunch of my friends were in the performing arts, I eventually gave in to peer pressure. By the end of the year, I was up on stage with my buddy doing “Who’s on First.” Two nights, and I didn’t stutter a bit.

Eighth Grade

A few quick things before getting into eighth grade —

I noticed there’s the British Stammering Association’s national conference in August over a weekend. Maybe I should go to that, too? I mean, might as well jump into the deep end, right? It’s in Glasgow. I’d probably only need to take one or two days off.

Speaking of which, please note that I’m in Saudi — so our days off are Friday and Saturday. I’ll try to set something up to post on the “weekend,” but may not always get around to it. As a bonus, you’ll get posts on Sunday, though.

Also, please note that this tour of my past is only of the major points that I recall — I’ll still dip into the mental archives now and again to highlight some issues. For example, I haven’t said anything about being raised as a Muslim — and having to learn to read Arabic.

Alright, onto eighth grade. As I mentioned, my confidence is cyclical, so by my last year in junior high, things were going very well. The boat anchor of having to talk in French was being towed along easily by every other class. I had established a solid core of friends, we enjoyed our classes, and my sense of humor was in full swing. By this time, I was watching Letterman on Friday nights and Friends on Thursday nights. My sarcasm was reaching new heights.

In English class we watched Dead Poets Society. There’s a scene in the movie when one of the characters receives a phone call and tells the headmaster in front of everybody. I thought this was great. That year we had a weekly class, something like, CAP, or Curriculum Activity Period. I can’t remember what it was for, but we thought it was useless, so we called it CRAP, or Curriculum-Related Activity Period. Anyway, inspired by the movie, I brought in a little Liberty Bell (that my brother had got on a field trip) and the headset from a telephone at home. Then, during English, I rang the bell and answered the phone. I told my teacher it was God, and that He thought we should cancel CAP.

Fortunately he had a sense of humor about it. He even showed me the paddle that he kept in his closet. Like most of the teachers, he was old school, so that sort of thing used to go down. My heinie was spared, and my confidence was boosted nicely. The other nice thing about school was that aside from French, there wasn’t any class participation. I could engage on my own terms. I could sit in the back of a class and make sarcastic comments under my breath to my heart’s content.

I don’t remember specifically going to speech therapy after sixth grade (although I did start going again in high school). I don’t remember that I even participated in such a decision. Maybe the teachers or therapists or my parents thought that I was doing fine? My grades were very solid. I didn’t have any behavioral issues.

So once again I had reached a relative peak, and once again, I’d be brought down mightily by a whole new experience. High school was up next.

Starting therapy and the rest of elementary school

In third grade, big changes started happening. I remember getting put into the gifted program (or maybe I was before, but now some of us were also in a separate group during regular class time) and my teacher, Mrs. Baker, telling me that while I did have a stutter, it wasn’t as bad as her uncle’s.

Even though I was being singled out for this, I wasn’t being held back by my stutter. I wasn’t letting it get in my way because I actually didn’t know any better. I was still doing very well in school, and scoring near the top of every test and quiz that was given. I knew almost all the answers in class as well.

While I haven’t asked my parents, I’m guessing this is around the time that the school district started talking to them about my stutter. My parents never talked to me about it anyway. Then in either third or fourth grade, I started speech therapy at school. It was what, maybe an hour or 45 minutes per week.

Like Jack before me, I would leave the classroom and see the therapist, a lady whose name I forgot. We’d sit down and chat, she’d make me say some sounds, some words, some sentences. And for the most part, I wouldn’t stutter at all. I was very comfortable. The nice thing was that nobody ever said, ‘hey, you need to fix this otherwise it’ll ruin your life forever.’ No, it was more of a break from classes to go chat with this nice lady, and that was that.

In fourth and fifth grade, I continued the speech therapy. And the gifted program. Thinking back on it, by fifth grade, I was very comfortable and confident. Knew pretty much everybody in the class, and got along well with them. Never got into any trouble. During a music class (while singing — or, you know, trying to sing) I discovered what anybody who stutters knows — that I didn’t stutter while singing. I thought this was pretty interesting albeit not very useful. My life wasn’t about to become a musical, after all.

I don’t remember the stuttering being a huge problem because we weren’t raising our hands and giving long descriptive answers. It was a quick word or number or whatever. Oral book reports or presentations … yeah, didn’t have those either that I recall. So things were going pretty well.

In our school district, the elementary school ended in fifth grade. Then it was time to get dumped into the junior high school (we called it middle school) for grades 6-8. A much bigger pool of kids, and a lot more uncertainty. But I’ll get to that in a little while. Let’s take a break and talk about how awful the telephone is for the next few days.

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