My experiences as a child/young person who stutters
My earliest memory of worrying that I wouldn’t be able to say something involves me standing in front of an audience of parents, teachers, and other children in the assembly hall at primary school. I believe I would have been around 7 or 8 years old, maybe a little younger. This was a small school so the assembly hall would have also been used as a dining hall at lunchtime and a sports hall during PE. I was holding a piece of paper in front of me with a couple of lines I had to say. All of a sudden, this intense worry filled me. I thought to myself ‘What if I can’t say this?’ and ‘I’m going to get stuck.’
A method often used by Speech & Language Therapists (SaLT) to show people who don’t stutter what it is like is to get them to imitate it. Years ago, in my early days as a SaLT, a newly qualified SaLT colleague was discussing doing this in a lecture at her university, describing how this made her feel, and the insight it gave her into what it would be like to stutter. More recently, I was listening to a stuttering-related podcast, where this approach was also taken to demonstrate to parents of children who stutter what it might be like for them. I do feel some discomfort about this. Someone who is voluntary stuttering doesn’t have the years of lived experience of what it is like. They don’t have the anticipatory feelings because they know when they are going to stutter. There is no need for them to avoid situations or words because of course they are intending to stutter during the specific situation on specific words. The biggest difference is control. As someone who stutters, you often don’t know how or when it is going to happen. The only merit I can really see with this activity is that they may have a glimpse of what the reaction of others to stuttering can be; although, this reaction relates to something they are doing, not something that is a part of who they are.
I decided to use this post to discuss some of my experiences as a child and teenager. I know that we’re all different, and some of these might be different to those experienced by others. I’ve considered what happened with information that I know now and discussed what I would have found useful at the time.
The Dreaded Register (insert ominous sound effect)
Every morning and every afternoon, we sat on the floor in front of my class teacher. They would have a clipboard with everyone’s names in alphabetical order. My surname is Cope so I would have been near the top. “Good morning, Tom” (insert sweaty palms and anxiety) “…g-g-good morning, Miss”. 190 days a year. Twice a day. Some days it would come out and some days it would get stuck. I didn’t know which it would be so I would just hope for the best.
Reading aloud in English
We had group reading in both primary and secondary school; although, secondary school English is what I remember most vividly. We would all have a copy of the same book, and the teacher would work around the classroom, with everybody reading a paragraph to the rest of the class. Now everyone else was probably listening to the story, taking in the wonders of John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice & Men’ or Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. Not me though! I was learning the order we would all read in, counting the number of pupils in front of me and working out which paragraph I’d have to read. I’d scan the paragraph and check the words and sounds. I don’t know what I was hoping to achieve. If I couldn’t say a word, I couldn’t magically change it in my book or the other 30 copies in the room.
Whilst in secondary school, we took half-termly science tests at the end of a module. I was pretty good at science, and we were afforded the opportunity to mark our own test papers. A typical pupil would have marked their paper up. Not me though! The total mark for the paper was around 35-36. I tended to score in the thirties and convinced myself I couldn’t say ‘th’. I regularly marked my own papers down, yes you heard that right, so I could say “29” when sharing my score to the teacher in front of the rest of the class.
Like most young people I was partial to the occasional McDonalds, and even more partial to a Big Mac. The dreaded ‘B’ sound! When I was younger, I tended to focus a lot on sounds I believed I couldn’t say. Anyway, “Can I have a…quarter pounder with cheese please?” Unfortunately, my fear of stuttering meant I consumed more Quarter Pounders with Cheese than Big Macs. Definitely one of my biggest regrets in life, especially when I am a vegetarian now.
Whilst at college, I took the bus each morning. As part of this mission, I’d have to ask for a “Return to Stroud.” The same anticipation and concern filled me. In the words of the great poet Eminem ‘palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy.’ It got to the point where I wrote what I needed onto a piece of paper to show the bus driver. For me this was a real low but also a turning point, when I realised that I couldn’t continue devoting so much of my energy to my speech.
For each of these situations, I was consumed by anticipatory thoughts I would stutter. Research indicates that the vast majority of people who stutter often or always experience these types of thoughts, which can result in action or non-action responses. Non-action responses typically include increased physical tension, reduced confidence, and increased awareness. Action responses can be broken down into avoidance (i.e. tricks) and self-management (i.e. strategies). With the register and reading aloud, I felt the time pressure to respond and the loss of control, not knowing whether my words would come out, often resulting in a negative emotional reaction if I did stutter. These could be classified as non-action responses. With the science test and public transport situations, I tended to act, although this involved avoidance, changing what I needed to say, or avoiding speaking altogether, as a response to the belief that I would stutter, further reinforcing the belief that I couldn’t say what I needed to.
Looking back on these situations as an adult, and a Speech & Language Therapist, I would have liked my teachers to have recognised my struggle and had a one-on-one conversation with me about how I felt and what could be done to make the situations easier. As a child, I probably would have opted to be excluded from reading aloud or the register, but I now know that this wouldn’t have been in my best interest. With reading aloud, I would have found it much easier if we were divided into smaller groups and I only had to read in front of a handful of my classmates. This would have demonstrated to me that I could do it but in a less pressured situation. I could have then worked up to whole class level. Similarly with the science test situation, if the class teacher had walked around and taken test scores table by table, I would have been able to give my correct score with less concerns about stuttering in front of the whole class.
I did go on to receive direct Speech & Language Therapy as a teenager. Part of this did involve learning speech modification techniques (e.g. sliding, voluntary stuttering, soft contacts) which I likely would have implemented during very specific situations, such as answering the register or ordering a Big Mac medium meal but overall, I would have benefitted from some direct support to reconsider my unhealthy thought processes. I was consumed by worries I would stutter and that this would be a negative thing. I would have benefitted from support to reduce my sensitivity to stuttering and to understand that if I was to stutter it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Positively, twenty years on, there are people out there advocating that ‘It is okay to stutter!’ This never crossed my mind as a child or teenager but fortunately things are changing and have changed for stuttering youths out there today.