Covert Stuttering

I recently had the opportunity to co-present a webinar with a dear friend who is a SLP and does not stutter. Our topic was “Dropping the ‘C’ in Covert Stuttering at Work.” It was the most well attended webinar we’ve hosted in 2+ years of offering conversations about stuttering at work. At one point, we had 80 people in the Zoom chat, many of whom were asking great questions of us and each other in the chat section. And many asked verbal questions as well. I was really surprised that people who stutter covertly were so open about discussing covert stuttering. I would have expected the opposite, that we’d hardly have anyone wanting to actually engage.

I think there are many more people who stutter than the 1% of the population that we believe to be a true statistic. There’s so many more that don’t get counted because they are covert. What needs to happen to bring covert stuttering out in the open? There is precious little research on covert stuttering and I think covert stuttering is very difficult for SLPS to approach because so little is known about it, and us, who hide in the shadows.

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Covert Stuttering — 4 Comments

  1. The number of people who experience covert stuttering is significant and it is the least understood by SLP (Speech Language Pathologist) generalists. Anyone with experience working with people who stutter know the impact, but I have seen a number of SLPs dismiss severity when they see a person present as fluent, often making comments such as: “This is a mild problem, or I don’t see a problem.” It reinforces the idea that anyone seeking therapy needs to engage a therapist with extensive knowledge in stuttering. I also believe that covert stuttering is perpetuated by well meaning parents and friends who reinforce and value fluency. The number of times I have heard a parent say: “He did great in his presentation. I didn’t hear him stutter once!” This is a powerful message to send to a child. I have heard stories of young people who dropped out of high school their senior year so they wouldn’t need to present in front of the class, people leaving jobs they loved because their role had changed to more customer interaction, children leaving the classroom–in spite of the prospect of detention–so they wouldn’t need to introduce themselves to the class. Behavior theory shows that a natural reaction to a negative stimulus is an escape behavior. Until we decrease the stigma of stutter, stop valuing fluency over communication and enable people to override that escape behavior–covert stuttering will persist. Thanks for educating this group!!

  2. First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the topic of your webinar. Let me also express my gratitude for your great comments here on this panel. I strongly agree with your observation that covert stuttering should be researched more deeply and more frequently. I can share some experiences from my clinical practice as an SLP and researcher in Poland. With regards to stuttering intervention, in my country, there is still a very strong focus on fluency. Personally, I had a chance to hear this kind of comment (when talking with the parents of CWS about potential family history of stuttering) that somebody in the family (e.g. grandfather) stuttered in the past but he is now cured. When we started exploring the topic in more depth it turned out that the person is perceived by family members as shy, withdrawn, and introverted. Sometimes the parents are so keen to know the truth that they ask the person directly. In some cases, they discovered that the stuttering was present in their families but their relative was pushed to hide his stuttering. In my opinion, in Poland, our main problem is a lack of current knowledge and acceptance of stuttering among the general public. So, if I try to answer your question “what needs to happen to bring cover stuttering out in the open?” my answer would be as follows: education and the dissemination of up-to-date knowledge should be applied. I believe in sharing current research findings with PWS, parents of CWS, teachers and other professionals as well as with young people who stutter. Promoting open public discussion about stuttering should be a helpful tool in changing society’s perception of the stuttering phenomenon – from being perceived as a defect to being seen as human differences. However, I personally believe that the most important duty for us – SLPs is to empower our clients to face their everyday challenges with dignity and self-acceptance. In my opinion to achieve this goal we have to collaborate not only with the children’s parents but also with the whole community. We have to invite PWS and parents of CWS to join us in disseminating updated knowledge about stuttering and encourage individuals who stutter to share their personal stories with their community. Their testimonials could be the best way to teach the general public and change social attitudes toward stuttering and people who stutter. I am aware that my view is quite idealistic and utopian, however, I believe that by taking small steps we can slowly achieve substantial changes. And this is what we try to do in Poland. Once again – thank you for your inspirational comment and question. Katarzyna Wesierska

  3. This is a really important topic. Your webinar sounds wonderful and the fact that so many people engaged with it shows how much of a need there is for open discussion about covert stuttering. I agree with Katarzyna, a lack of knowledge, awareness and acceptance of stuttering among the general public is a big part of the issue here. Changing the way stuttering is viewed is key. People who stutter but can, on the whole, hide it (with effort) and feel ashamed to stutter may not seek support, either from a Speech and Language Therapist or from the wider stuttering community itself unless we can change the broad view of stuttering so that it is seen as a difference rather than a disorder.
    Awareness raising and educational events such as the webinar you describe, this marvellous conference and campaigns like the Stamma campaign by the British Stammering Association in the UK are what’s needed to bring all forms of stuttering more into the open, including covert stuttering. Thank you for raising such an important topic.

  4. This is such an important topic, and I am so glad that you brought this up, Pam! What a wonderful webinar, and congrats on bring this topic to the forefront. With that being said, I completely agree with Rita, Katarzyna and Jenny have stated. I would like to expand upon the “lack of knowledge” component to this discussion. I think this also starts at the graduate school level of instruction with speech pathologists as well. I feel like so many individuals who are covert people who stutter are falling through the cracks and being left undiagnosed. I have even diagnosed children as covert people who stutter, who grew out of overt stuttering behaviors perhaps, let’s say by the age of 10, but still avoided speaking situations for the fear that he or she would still persistently stutter, and that had an affect on academics, social/emotional life, relationships, etc so the child still needed speech therapy services. If I didn’t have the knowledge on covert stuttering, I wouldn’t have known that the “fluency data” would have NOT shown stuttering… but that the covert/emotional information gained in the evaluation process did. I feel like a lot of this starts with the education of our graduate students. I teach my graduate students that the child that is covert needs speech therapy just as much as the child that is overt and covert, just overt, etc. Too many speech pathologists are still using tools like the Stuttering Severity Index-4 or data collection processes to say “this child stutters” or “this child doesn’t stutter” and the covert aspects, unfortunately, often times fall through the cracks. This goes back to using best practice in diagnosis of stuttering, and looking beyond just “fluency data” for the diagnosis of stuttering, and for stuttering intervention.

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