Nancy Barcal was asked to be on the panel for the International Stuttering Awareness Conference. She was part of the panel of experts in the field of stuttering. People were allowed to ask any question pertaining to stuttering.
One group of Graduate students studying to be Speech-Language Pathologists asked Nancy a question. We felt this question was incredibly relevant to what many people may be wondering and feeling. We wanted to share Nancy’s answer with you.
We are graduate speech-language pathology students who are currently enrolled in a course that covers stuttering. As we are learning more about stuttering and interacting more with people who stutter, a few questions have come up. First, in your experience, what is the best way to interact with individuals who stutter while remaining sensitive, but still addressing the stutter? How do these individuals typically react or want you to react? How have your interactions changed as you have become more experienced within the field? Thanks so much for your time. We appreciate any tips or suggestions you can share.
Rosi, Sarah, Maggie
As graduate students, you have probably had very little interaction, if any, with individuals who stutter. I am happy to tell you that people who stutter (PWS) are just like the rest of us. They will display variations in preferences and responses. Your interaction will be slightly different if you are meeting a person who stutters in a social situation versus being assigned to see them as a therapist in the clinic.
I’ll address the therapy situation first. As a new therapist, I remember being very worried about whether or not I would react in the correct way.
In terms of your physical and verbal reactions, treat the PWS as if they didn‘t stutter. Keep natural eye contact. If the person has a hard block or long prolongation or significant facial movement, you may be tempted to show your surprise. This will be less likely if you have desensitized yourself to seeing and hearing stuttering. Watch lots of videotapes of PWS so you’ll be used to it and you won’t be shocked by anything you see or hear. Your face and your heart should be calm and reflect a normal expression. If PWS are talking, just keep quiet and wait. Don’t interrupt. Wait until they are finished talking. Then you talk. It’s simple common courtesy not to talk until your conversational partner is finished sharing their idea, so don’t treat a person who stutters any differently. Just wait. I can’t emphasize that enough. You will be tempted to talk too soon. Stop. Don’t do it. Wait. Think of how rude it would be if someone talked before you were finished or they finished your sentence for you! You’d be insulted. What if they finished it with the wrong word? Then you’d have to start your thought again and you’d be frustrated they didn’t give you time to finish your idea. If you need help waiting then practice silently counting to three before you talk. Tap your fingers silently in your palm to stop yourself from talking too soon. Practice waiting and pacing your speech with another therapist before you conduct your first session.
I will share some of the key components of a successful first session as a new therapist. Be sincere and honest. Share that you’d love to learn more about stuttering. You’ve read a lot about the topic and now you’d like to hear about stuttering from an expert-the person who stutters. You might ask them some of the following questions: If you’ve been in therapy before what did you like or dislike? What worked and what didn’t? Are there techniques they really want to avoid or ones they’d like to practice more? What techniques do they remember and what were the techniques labeled? (Some people call the same technique by various labels; easy onset, soft starts…). After they list the names of techniques then ask them to demonstrate the techniques and teach you. You imitate their models and then they provide feedback about how well you are doing or provide you with additional instruction. Share that you are just learning the skills and they will need to help you. This places them in a position of not only explaining techniques to you so you see what they know but it also provides insight into their ability to demonstrate what they know in theory. You will also experience what it’s like to apply the techniques and you’ll understand a little bit about how difficult it is to concentrate on changing motor skills. If the person likes some techniques then ask them when and where they use them. do they only use with a few people or with large groups? What are their goals for therapy? Why did they decide to get help now? Plan your session so no matter what their response you have at least one goal and one specific home activity to use before their next session. Involve them in writing a realistic goal.
Now my answer to talking to PWS in a social situation. Respond to what the person says not how they say it. We all want to be accepted, loved and valued.
In social situations, we all have our own definition of what a successful interaction entails. Ask 100 people what annoys them about social events and you’ll get a variety of answers. One person says they get annoyed if people at a party are quiet. They love talking, asking lots of questions and learning details about everyone’s life at the party. Another person prefers to find a quiet corner and talk to one or two people all night and hold in-depth discussions. Just like all of us, individuals who stutter have a range of comfort levels in social situations.
If you’re interested in learning more about stuttering, ask people who stutter. Ask them what it feels like to stutter, how they wish people would react and what they wish everyone knew about stuttering. If you are truly passionate about stuttering, then spend time researching, interviewing and enjoying your time with PWS. I am a bit biased because I have found individuals who stutter to be some of the most incredibly kind, sensitive, compassionate, intelligent and insightful human beings I have ever met. It has been a wonderful honor to share the journey with people who stutter for nearly 40 years. I encourage more SLP’s to specialize in stuttering because it’s a wonderful journey.