Hello, I am currently a graduate student, and I am working with an adult client who covertly stutters. What are some recommendations to help desensitize stuttering? What are some recommendations to help a PWS become more open to self-disclosure? What are some recommendations to help a PWS become more open to stuttering on purpose (voluntary stuttering)?

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Question? — 2 Comments

  1. I was a covert stutterer for more than 30 years. I had heard messages early on from my father and a teacher that stuttering was wrong, that there was something wrong with me. My father yelled and screamed at me to shut up any time I stuttered. I desperately wanted to stop receiving negative feedback so I tried to figure out ways to not stutter. The only thing that worked was to not talk. I was five.

    Those early experiences made me feel so ashamed of how I talked, that the shame grew and built until I didn’t know how to do anything else but switch words, talk in circles and avoid. Mostly avoid. I let people think I was OK with being the quiet one, the shy one because it guaranteed no one would laugh at me. I did that all through school, college and my early working life.

    But on the inside, and in my head, I was social and bursting to talk and make friends. I was desperate to be authentic and be free of the fake persona I had created.

    My covert tricks started to eventually not work as well. Stuttering was happening at work. No one ever said anything because I never did. But co-workers knew I stuttered. I know that because when I was fired from my job of 20+ years, they asked me, “it wasn’t because of your stuttering, was it?”

    It was because of my stuttering. A new boss had come in who clearly had a problem when he heard me stutter sometimes at work. At meetings, he would roll his eyes if I stuttered and laughed sarcastically.

    I was brought into the Director’s office one day and was told I was being terminated. He was on a chair in the background. He didn’t even have the guts to tell me himself- he had the HR guy tell me that there was concern about my poor communication and that I was a poor role model for the young people I worked with. After 20 years. 20 years.

    Two days after this happened I looked up stuttering on the internet for the first time ever and realized there was a stuttering support group in my area, only 20 minutes from me, that I had never knew about because I had always spent so much time hiding and covering up my stuttering. I went to that first meeting and couldn’t say a word and started crying and left abruptly. Someone from the group emailed me to encourage me to come back.

    It took me months to feel comfortable to say anything at the group. But I was so relieved to have finally met other people who stuttered, and women, like me. That support group was at a college that had a CSD department so I thought I’d give therapy a try.

    It did not go well. I was a stutterer who didn’t stutter, because I had masterfully perfected being covert. The student clinicians (three because they changed every semester) only seemed to know how to teach fluency shaping techniques. With me not acknowledging my stutter, a student clinician was trying to teach me gentle onset and pull-outs.

    I needed to explore the damage years of hiding my stuttering had done and how my personality had been almost completely hijacked. I needed to identify, label and begin to chip away at the self-loathing and shame I’d been carrying around. I needed to stutter and know it was OK.

    To answer your questions, I don’t think techniques such as voluntary stuttering and encouraging the person to self-disclose will work until the reasons why hiding stuttering became the choice.

    I wrote above that my experience with therapy did not go well. It didn’t – I only stayed about 18 months and that was because I was just happy to be around others who stutter. Just being in the company of others who stuttered was so normalizing for me.

    What helped me the most was to meet other people who stuttered, allow myself to gradually see that I had a voice even if it stuttered, and to give myself a break and begin to reframe stuttering from something negative and shameful to something that made me unique. I also saw a psychologist for a few years to help me regain my sense of self that stuttering almost took away from me.

    Help your client unravel all the stuff below the surface and figure out why he/she started hiding and continues to hide. Give him/her some tools to use on the journey towards better communication or confidence. Tools that he/she can use for the time it may take to figure this stuff out. It will take more than the time he/she spends with you in a semester.

    I am not intentionally trying to be Debbie Downer here – but the reasons for hiding stuttering take a long time to figure out. Being covert changes you and helping that person find their self again is the greatest tool you can provide, in my humble opinion, of course. 😊


  2. Thank you Jer_Bala for the question and thank Pam for the response. I resonate so much with Pam as a former covert stutterer and I appreciate people like Pam who gave me the courage to get out of my shell to face my stuttering after 3 decades of hiding. I am so much happier now than before since I came out of the “Stuttering closet”. The hard part for me right now is to forgive my younger self who chose to hide it in the first place. Born in a small town in China without any resources or help, the only way I learned how to fit in and cope with my stuttering was by hiding it. It did serve it purpose in a way, at least in my young mind. It helped me avoid public shaming and open bully. However, the price to pay for covert stuttering is your authenticity, integrity and happiness.
    Being connected to the community ,as Pam mentioned, helped me so much too. Claiming my identity as a person who stutters is claiming my power back. Owning my stuttering is the most courageous and rewarding decision I have ever made. And I never looked back for a day!