By Nan Bernstein Ratner, Ed.D., University of Maryland, College Park

If you remember your original “intro” text to communication sciences and disorders, it probably was divided into broad sections, such as speech, language and hearing. Indeed, that was the actual title of my own intro text. In such texts, stuttering was always covered in the section on Speech Disorders.

Separating speech, language and hearing was conventional for many years, including old record keeping of practicum and classroom experiences for ASHA certification, and is an example of what is now called “modularity,” the assumption that an ability or skill is encapsulated in some way, cognitively or even physically, as in a discrete area of the brain.

But few scientists these days are convinced of the modularity of speech, language or hearing – these skills overlap in major ways in everyday function. They are also increasingly documented as having impacts that overlap within individual disorders, such as stuttering.

Is stuttering a speech disorder?

Certainly, it involves speech. One hears the behavioral features of stuttering, which are present in the speech signal. But increasingly, stuttering has been shown to have features that intersect with language: recent literature shows rather compellingly that children who stutter tend to have less good language skills, that adults who stutter find some language tasks more difficult than their non-stuttering peers do, and that both adults and children who stutter appear to process language differently than fluent peers, as measured by brain responses, even when passively listening to well-formed and poorly formed utterances. 

Some studies suggest that the strength of language abilities at first diagnosis may predict which children recover spontaneously, with less good language skills associated with a risk for persistence. As in many other disorders, being diagnosed with one communication impairment, such as stuttering, carries elevated risk for having a second disorder, such as language or phonological delay/impairment.

Even if we prefer to consider stuttering a motor movement disorder, its features are not confined to the speech system: both adults and children who stutter find it more difficult to learn and master not only novel sequences of sounds but gestures such as tapping a rhythm as well.

Speech motor coordination in both children and adults who stutter is adversely impacted by the linguistic complexity of the utterance they are trying to produce. Finally, many studies continue to show that those who stutter find it much more difficult than other speakers to “multi-task” or respond to two tasks at once. Under such conditions, theie performance tends to slow and/or decline more than we would see in their fluent peers.

Even hearing may interact with stuttering in ways that are as yet poorly understood.

Neuroimaging appears to suggest that adults who stutter have depressed function in areas that tend to be associated with self-monitoring.

One study suggests that adults who stutter demonstrate an atypical profile of activity in circuits that are meant to monitor one’s own speech while speaking, as distinguished from the circuits used in listening to others. Certainly, one unique feature of stuttering in young children is the high degree of awareness that many children who stutter have of their speech difficulties – compare any young child who stutters, even close to onset, with a child who has an articulation or language problem. The differences are obvious and somewhat startling, especially because young typically developing children don’t tend to notice errors in their speech when they talk.

The heightened sensitivity that many children who stutter show to their own speech and to the reactions of others around them is clearly a factor in the development of the so-called affective and cognitive components of stuttering that also distinguish it in major ways from other developmental communication disorders.

Why is any of this research important in working with children who stutter? It’s valuable, in our opinion, to understand that a person who stutters may be working with a language formulation and motor execution system that has challenges that go well beyond the speech motor system; and that fact may require us to integrate best practices from other areas of the field in order to achieve best outcomes.

Even if your goal is to teach your client new ways of “smooth talking” or “sliding out” of disfluent moments, basic research that has broadened our understanding of stuttering suggests that considering linguistic, motor, cognitive and affective components of your client’s profile may aid in achieving better outcomes.

When working on fluency skills, have you considered the strength of your client’s sentence formulation and word retrieval skills? Given the impact that linguistic challenge may have on speech motor coordination in stuttering, have you tried to teach new fluency skills in conversational contexts that begin at simple levels and then gradually increased language and cognitive demands to more challenging levels?

Given the robust association of vocabulary skills with school and standardized test achievement, probably every child on your caseload can benefit from vocabulary enrichment in the course of therapy for other targets.

The relatively weaker profiles of children who stutter when learning new sequences or gestures implies that it may take much more practice to create “expertise” in using fluency skills, just as it appears to take much more exposure to new words to learn them for children who have SLI. 

Every child and adult finds that the most challenging multi-tasking in speech - or even sports performance- is thinking about others’ reactions or evaluations, which may be why public speaking is universally feared by most fluent speakers.

Consider how hard it is for your client to balance language formulation, speech execution and monitoring for their own and others’ reactions. A simple way to appreciate it for those who don’t stutter is to ask yourself to repeat (“cancel”) each time you say “um”, “uh”, or any other favorite filler – invite a family member to watch and see how well you are doing with this task. Then stop and ask how long it might take you to change your speech patterns and make that change durable.

Finally, I believe that the most disservice that has been done in considering stuttering to be “just” a speech disorder is in how we tend to view the pace of stuttering therapy.

I was once asked by a superintendent of a school system to provide a stuttering workshop for her SLPs. She explained that clearly they needed such a workshop because, to quote her, “the stuttering kids never get off the caseload.”

This stopped me in my tracks. I asked her whether or not the “language kids” ever got off the caseload. She acknowledged that students’ language problems tend to require ongoing work, as the challenges of the curriculum evolve over the child’s development.

Then I asked her why should stuttering be any different? You already know her answer: because it’s a speech problem. The children who misarticulate get off the caseload rather quickly; by this analogy, so should the children who stutter.

Most newsletter readers will see the failure in reasoning here. But it’s really just one more consequence of seeing stuttering in our old intro text’s table of contents as a speech disorder. Perhaps taking a broader view will help not only to understand stuttering better, but to treat it better as well.

From the Fall 2023 Magazine