Written by Matthew O’Malley
“What is dysfluency?” you might ask. Dysfluency is stuttering. The field of speech and language pathology is moving more towards the use of the term “dysfluency” which I think is a more fitting term for what is traditionally called stuttering. So, on this site, dysfluency means stuttering (I will use these terms interchangeably).
Why is it a more fitting term? Well, when most people hear “stuttering” they think of the repetition of sounds. While this is one form and one aspect of stuttering, it is very far from all encompassing. Stuttering can manifest as silent involuntary “blocks” in speech as well as various other forms. The nature of the condition is not the repeating of sounds; it is the inability of the person who stutters to speak fluently. It is the lack of control the person who stutters has that is at the core of the condition. It is the inability to willfully initiate speech as well as maintain its flow. More concisely, it is the inability to speak fluently. This is why “dysfluency” is a much more fitting term.
In diving deeper, the inability to speak fluently is usually accompanied by a wide range of emotions, behaviors and coping strategies implemented by the individual who stutters in an attempt to deal with the condition. The effects of dysfluency on an individual’s life are likely beyond the imagination of someone who has not experienced it first hand. I’ll save this complex topic for down the road.
Now, as is obvious, the site’s title is “Understanding Dysfluency”. Aptly, I will be exploring the nature of dysfluency on this site in an attempt to better understand it. Now, if you know anything about dysfluency, you understand this is a tall task. Charles Van Riper (a person who stuttered and one of the founding fathers of the field of speech & language pathology) described stuttering as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” (a quote borrowed from Winston Churchill who was also a person who stuttered)
Dysfluency has been around for as far back in time as we have records and we still do not understand it. There is an Egyptian hieroglyph that is thought to be depicting stuttering. It is widely thought by Christian scholars that Moses was a person who stuttered. The first known “treatment” for dysfluency came in Ancient Greece where Demosthenes was known to have a stutter. He was advised to speak with pebbles in his mouth or so the story goes. Many individuals and institutions have attempted to understand the nature and cause of dysfluency as well as design effective treatment regimens for it.
It is now the 21st century. It’s been over 2 millennia since Demosthenes was instructed to put pebbles in his mouth to fix his dysfluency. Many have tried their hand at understanding this puzzling condition. So, after all this time and work, where are we in terms of treatment efficacy in the 21st century? I’ll answer by telling you a couple quick things about myself. I am a 31 year old adult who has been stuttering for 20 years (yes, I atypically started stuttering when I was 11). My journey, my life as a whole as a person who has a dysfluency has been extremely difficult. I have searched high and low for a way to resolve my dysfluency. I have sought out the most highly-qualified, world-renowned professionals in the area of stuttering. I have followed their direction to a T. I have sought out outside-the-box thinkers with intriguing vantage points on stuttering. I have dedicated myself to disciplined regimens of treatment involving hours of work per day for extended periods of time. I have taken spiritual and psychological approaches to treating different aspects of stuttering. I have done everything I can think of to remove the struggle from speaking and interaction. Yet, here I am at 31 still significantly struggling with dysfluency. This should tell you something about our current level of understanding about stuttering and the efficacy of the treatments that currently exist. It should tell you that for the most part, we are still at a loss.
Another piece of information that should reveal how effective today’s treatments for dysfluency are is one of today’s cutting edge therapies. It’s basically acceptance therapy. The extremely complicated nature of stuttering has put experts in the field at a place of surrender. It’s basically, “OK, we don’t know how to fix it, we don’t understand it. We’ve tried many methods without much effectiveness. Currently, there is not much we can do about it. Therefore, we need to focus on acceptance of dysfluency and finding ways to live full lives with stuttering.”
Now I am not balking at “acceptance therapy.” I think for professionals in the field this is currently one of the most responsible ways to approach treatment with a client. I also think that for a lot of people, acceptance therapies make a significantly positive impact on their lives and how they deal with dysfluency. However, the fact that this is the new wave of treatment in today’s world reveals how helpless the field of speech & language pathology feels towards improving the actual speaking aspect of dysfluency.
Now that I have communicated the lack of proven options currently available to enable a person who is dysfluent to become a relatively normal speaker, you can better understand my intentions for this site. It is estimated that 70 million people are dysfluent worldwide. Many of these individuals share a lot of the struggles and frustrations I have experienced. Myself and the other 69,999,999 people with dysfluencies currently have nowhere to turn to get real results. Something needs to be done.
Like most people who stutter, I have spent a lot of my life casually pondering its nature. For most of this time, I looked to others for answers in helping me to remedy this problem. Well, over the past year or so, I have turned that nonchalant pondering into organized and focused insight gathering. I have oriented myself to look in the mirror for answers about this puzzling condition instead of looking to others. I have come to the realization that the current state of the speech and language pathology field cannot help me. I am going to have to figure it out myself.
It is likely that I will fail in remedying my dysfluency. However, before I accept my stuttering, I feel I must exhaust all resources and ideas that may free me from what I have experienced to be an extremely frustrating and debilitating condition. I have tried everything others have told me to try. In contrast, I am now on a journey to try and solve it myself. If 5 years from now, I am at square one and have made no progress, I may finally accept my dysfluency, as I will truly believe there is nothing I can do about it. Maybe I won’t. Who knows?
For now though, I would like to go back to the quote by Winston Churchill/Charles Van Riper. It stated that stuttering is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” In playing off of this quote I would like to add that dysfluency is a fickle and fluctuating phenomenon. (hope you don’t have trouble with /f/)
To very briefly broach this enigma that we’re dealing with, let’s look at the scenario below. What I describe is typical of many (not all) people who stutter.
A person who stutters stands in front of a door. There is no one in the room with him. He looks at the door and says, “Hi, my name is John. It’s nice to meet you.” (I know people don’t speak to doors, but just go with it for the sake of the example.) The speech flows normally and naturally.
Next, the same person is standing in front of the same door. He pushes the door open. There is nothing outside the door. Facing the open door, he says, “Hi, my name is John. It’s nice to meet you.” The speech flows normally and naturally.
Next, the same person is standing in front of the door again. It’s closed again. He pushes the door open and there is a person standing on the other side. He goes to say the exact same thing in the exact same way but can’t. He blocks. He stutters. He is at a complete loss as to how to regain control. It comes out like this, “………..Hi……m……my name………….is……J..J..John. It’s nice…….to……..meet……y…y..you.”
Welcome to the enigma of dysfluency.