Counseling Today, Member Insights

Counseling people who stutter

By Chad M. Yates, Karissa Colbrunn and Dan Hudock April 11, 2018

Kyle hears the drone of the elevator music playing behind the bland voice that states, “All calls are important to us. Thank you for your patience. A customer service representative will be with you in just a moment.” Kyle knows the message well because he has been on hold for nearly 15 minutes. While waiting, Kyle practices in his head the message he needs to state: “Hello, my name is Kyle, and I need to schedule a shuttle ride to and from the airport.”

Suddenly, a crackling voice replaces the music. “Hello, thank you for calling OK Shuttle. How can I assist you?”

Kyle feels his throat tighten and his chest begin to seize. “Hello, my name is Kyyyyyy, my name is Kyyyyyyy, Kyyyy.”

“Sir, are you there? Sir, are you there?” insists the customer service rep.

Kyle continues: “Hello, my name is Kyyyyle. I need to schedddddd … I need to schedddddd, scheddddd.”

“Sorry, sir,” the voice on the other line says. “We have a poor connection. Please call back again when your service is more reliable.”

The sound of the click thunders in Kyle’s ear as a tight-pitched squeal replaces the silence. Kyle looks down at his feet, too afraid to pick them up and move. He feels frozen in anger, disgust and helplessness. Fear precludes the idea of calling back again.

This experience is all too common for people who stutter (PWS). For these individuals, the experience of communication, which many of us take for granted, becomes a blockade that stands between connection, understanding and the navigation of one’s world.

Experts in the field of speech-language pathology define stuttering as a communication disorder involving disruptions, or disfluencies, in an individual’s speech. The cause of stuttering is typically thought to be a neurological condition that interferes with the production of speech. Although many children spontaneously recover from stuttering, for approximately 3 million U.S. adults (about 1 percent of the population), stuttering is chronic and has no cure. Despite this, there are ways to manage stuttering in both the behavioral sense (how much the person stutters) and the psychological sense (how much stuttering impacts the person’s life).

Situations such as the one that Kyle experienced can happen almost daily for PWS. The pain of these experiences often leads these individuals to isolate themselves from the things they love to do because the risk of communicating can feel as if it outweighs the benefits of living the life they want to live. Peer reactions to unusual speaking patterns can begin as early as age 4. These reactions persist and increase throughout adolescence, which can negatively affect many facets of life, including social relationships, emotional well-being and academic performance, for PWS. Adults who stutter have scored significantly lower in questionnaires regarding quality of life, specifically in regard to vitality, social functioning, emotional role functioning and mental health. Although various studies show that counseling is indicated with this population, many speech-language pathologists are not trained in counseling or do not feel comfortable with their counseling skills and abilities.

Interprofessional collaborations between speech-language pathologists and counselors can be considered best practice for helping PWS and other individuals with common communication disorders. Idaho State University’s counseling and speech-language pathology departments are involved in a unique relationship in which they are training both speech-pathology interns and counseling interns to work side by side to treat PWS. This treatment is provided through the university’s Northwest Center for Fluency Disorders Interprofessional Intensive Stuttering Clinic (NWCFD-IISC), which offers a two-week clinic for adolescents and adults who stutter.

The clinic is the first of its kind in which speech-language pathologists and counseling interns work together to treat the holistic needs of clients who stutter through acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a mindfulness-based mental health approach. We (the authors of this article) have conducted the clinic over four consecutive years. Through this experience, we feel that we can share recommendations for counselors working with PWS and with other clients who present with communication disorders. Additionally, we have observed key ingredients for interprofessional collaboration and can speak to strategies to build effective interprofessional teams.

Recommendations for counselors

To be effective working with PWS, counselors need to address the misconceptions they have about stuttering. Consulting resources, such as the National Stuttering Association and the Stuttering Foundation, that are supported by PWS can help counselors to debunk common myths associated with this population.

One common myth is that stress causes a person to stutter. Another myth is that taking deep breaths before one speaks can eliminate stuttering. We have heard countless “cures” for stuttering from the general public. These include placing spices under one’s tongue, receiving acupuncture and sitting or standing with the correct posture. These erroneous cures can be insulting and demeaning to PWS. At best, it is frustrating for PWS to hear these ideas repeated over and over again. Counselors should be knowledgeable about the lack of support for these types of cures while being able to point out to clients resources on effective treatments.

For PWS, reactions from listeners often can be painful. As PWS become more aware of their stuttering and encounter negative listener reactions to their disfluencies, they may develop negative emotions toward communication situations and begin to avoid speaking. The shame and guilt that PWS often feel for stuttering can lead to fear, anxiety and tension in relation to communication, as well as decreased self-confidence. PWS may develop secondary behaviors that they employ in hopes of alleviating their stuttering. These secondary behaviors might include avoiding eye contact, avoiding speaking to people in positions of authority and avoiding certain words that they anticipate stuttering. Being aware of this, it is important for counselors to understand the role that positive regard, expressed behaviorally through continuous eye contact or not averting their glance when PWS speak, can have on these individuals.

Working effectively with PWS also involves using positive and respectful communication practices. During conversations, time pressure can be present when PWS take longer to communicate. This can sometimes lead to one party attempting to finish the other’s sentences. To PWS, this behavior can suggest that their communication of ideas may not be as important as the other speaker’s time.

Finishing a person’s sentences is often done in reaction to uncomfortable feelings associated with the time pressure of communication. Counselors should be aware of when they are experiencing these feelings. They should continue to allow their clients who stutter to finish what they wish to say regardless of time pressure and regardless of whether these clients are having blocks (when sound or air is stopped in the lungs, throat or mouth/lips/tongue), breaking off speech or having repetitions (repeating a sound, syllable or word more than once or twice).

The final recommendation involves the use of person-first language. Often, PWS call themselves “stutterers.” Reframing the language to say a “person who stutters” can reduce the stigma that surrounds the word “stutterer.” This action also treats the person as an individual. During the NWCFD-IISC, we empower PWS and work to mitigate stigma by reinforcing the idea that what a person says is more valuable and important than the way he or she says it. We also affirm that all individuals deserve to communicate their thoughts and ideas.

Recommendations for interprofessional teams

Interprofessional teams can be difficult to start and maintain in practice. Professional training often maintains solo practice as its modality, adding topics related to interprofessional collaboration as elective practice. We have used the stuttering clinic as a way to train counseling and speech-language interns in interprofessional practice and application.

We have observed that to effectively build these teams, it is essential to train our interns on the respective scopes of clinical practice, professional roles and clinical responsibilities of each other’s professions. We also train our students on how to work in teams, how to build relationships based on open communication and respect, and how to understand and use team dynamics that occur during practice. Finally, we reinforce the shared values of both professions — that the well-being of the client is paramount to the purpose of the team.

We have observed that interns typically begin collaborations with thicker boundaries of professional practice and rigid time sharing when interacting with clients. However, after the pair begin to find comfort and understanding of each other’s professional roles, these boundaries begin to wane. Time sharing becomes much more dynamic and less rigid. When intern pairings are working effectively, we see the pair begin to assist each other in their roles and to plan out how they can work together to assist the client during the next session.

To facilitate the interns working together, we teach them specific strategies that are unique to each profession. For example, the speech-language interns learn how to use basic listening skills and practice these skills with the help of their counseling partners. Speech-language interns also learn the foundations of counseling interventions. Specific to the NWCFD-IISC, the interns learn the foundations of ACT. All interns are also taught the practice of meditation and mindful practice, and the principles of acceptance, thought defusion and emotional expansion. Counseling interns learn the foundations of speech-language pathology interventions. Specific to the NWCFD-IISC, they learn about how stuttering occurs, how to assess for stuttering and the social and emotional impacts of stuttering.

All interns in the clinic engage in pseudo-stuttering (fake stuttering) in public and use speech-modification techniques with all clinic participants and the public. Pseudo-stuttering can be used as a therapeutic strategy for PWS to increase acceptance and openness with their stuttering and to increase self-confidence. When the clinic interns pseudo-stuttered and used speech-modification techniques with NWCFD-IISC clients in public, the clients reported that these experiences strengthened the client-clinician relationship.

Our recommendation to counselors and speech-language pathologists who desire to develop collaborative teams is to be intentional about building a professional relationship on the grounds of respect and open communication. The team members should take time to learn about one another’s professions, roles and clinical responsibilities. We have observed during the training of our interns that speech-language pathologists are often focused on outcomes and data collection, whereas counselors are often more focused on process elements and the clinical relationship. It is essential to see both sides of the team as contributing to the overall impact in a unique way. The team members will work to support one another’s strengths and weaknesses.

Counseling interventions

The NWCFD-IISC uses an ACT framework. ACT was chosen because it provides a strengths- and skills-based approach grounded in mindfulness and psychological flexibility. ACT explores human suffering as it relates to psychological inflexibility. Using this framework, PWS learn to more fully focus on the present moment, become more accepting of their thoughts and feelings, and take steps toward acting in alliance with their personal values.

Several studies have supported positive results regarding the efficacy of ACT when applied to stuttering. In addition to this supported efficacy, we think that ACT closely aligns with the philosophy of the NWCFD-IISC. Our philosophy of treatment involves clients and students taking a team approach to understand, accept and effectively manage thoughts, emotions and behaviors related to stuttering. This is accomplished through generalized experiential activities, group education and discussion, and individual and group counseling.

ACT can be understood through the six guiding principles on the ACT hexaflex. These six principles are acceptance, thought defusion, mindfulness, self as context, values and committed action. Investigating how each principle applies, we can begin to understand the process of counseling PWS through an ACT lens.

1) Mindfulness: Clients who stutter often avoid the present moment by judgmentally reviewing the past or worrying about the future. Clinicians can help PWS to connect with the present moment through the use of meditation and mindfulness activities. Encouraging mindful practices can be a goal to incorporate in counseling.

2) Acceptance: PWS often feel like they have no control over their stuttering. Regardless of what they do, a stuttering moment may or may not arise. In these moments, PWS can choose to talk, choose to stutter openly and choose to acknowledge all the thoughts and emotions related to stuttering. Clinicians can help PWS explore acceptance of their thoughts and feelings. PWS do not need to like the thoughts or emotions they experience or enjoy stuttering. However, they can experience their thoughts or emotions as they surface without judgment.

3) Thought defusion: PWS have a tendency to overidentify with their thoughts or feelings, enabling these thoughts and feelings to become mental truths that cause inflexibility within the thought process. PWS may attempt to mentally avoid stuttering or become overwhelmed trying to control their speech. Additionally, PWS may feel certain that other people will reject or harshly criticize them, thus causing them to avoid social contact.

Clinicians can help PWS to explore and express all thoughts — helpful and unhelpful — about their stuttering. By unhooking from the thought or emotion, PWS can experience more psychological flexibility in relation to the context that the thought or emotion is occurring within.

4) Self as context: Individuals often associate with expressions in the form of labels, such as “I am smart” or “I am dumb.” These labels relate to content, not context. Individuals may define themselves in terms of content instead of context to fuse with thoughts and emotions that may be either known or unknown. PWS use self-as-content behaviors to avoid facing the reality of stuttering. PWS may think, “I stutter. That’s all I do. Because of my stuttering, I do poorly in school and never meet new people.”

Clinicians should explore with PWS how these thoughts about self are related either to content or context. Reinforcing flexibility in self-identity is key because it allows PWS to adapt more flexibly to novel situations.

5) Defining values: As described by Jason Luoma, Steven Hayes and Robyn Walser, in ACT, values are defined as “constructed, global, desired and chosen life directions” that can be expressed as adverbs or verbs. When exploring values with PWS, the notion of choice is important to discuss. Choice connotes the flexibility and autonomy they possess in defining what guides their behaviors or life direction.

A common values activity involves the “eulogy exercise.” During this activity, PWS visualize what a close friend would say at their funeral. Clinicians might even direct PWS to write down the values that were expressed during the eulogy: “He was a kind person” or “She was a caring friend” or “He was a compassionate individual.” Clinicians can then discuss these values with PWS and explore how these values are currently manifested and how they can become lost. Building awareness of what values are important in a person’s life can encourage these clients to persist through the difficult times they face.

6) Committed actions: ACT explores the concept of choice in alignment with values-based goals. When clients feel ready to initiate steps either within or outside of counseling, exploration of these committed actions in the counseling session is warranted. For PWS, committed actions could be used by encouraging challenging stuttering situations. For example, PWS may choose to take action directed at speaking situations during dating, during novel social interactions or within work settings. Committed action is the stage of counseling that encourages the synthesis of the tools within the complete hexaflex. PWS learn to engage in a way that is adaptive and flexible to their external and internal worlds.

Summary

Counseling PWS can be a rich and rewarding experience. Through our work in the NWCFD-IISC, we have built lasting connections with individuals in the stuttering community and learned how to form strong interprofessional teams that enhanced our understanding of two professions. In working with PWS, understanding the specific population concerns is key to effective treatment. Additionally, collaboration with professionals in the speech-pathology discipline can further enhance treatment experiences for PWS and for all professionals engaged in the collaboration.

 

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Chad M. Yates is a licensed professional counselor and an assistant professor in the Idaho State University (ISU) Department of Counseling. He has served as the mental health coordinator for the Northwest Center for Fluency Disorders at ISU for several years. He helped to develop the acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) manuals and procedures for clients and clinicians at the clinic and supervises the counselors providing ACT. Contact him at yatechad@isu.edu.

Karissa Colbrunn is a school-based speech-language pathologist in Pocatello, Idaho. She is passionate about merging the values of the stuttering community with the field of speech-language pathology.

Dan Hudock is an associate professor at ISU. As a person who stutters, he is passionate about helping those with fluency disorders. One aspect of his research involves exploring effective collaborations between speech-language pathologists and mental health professionals for the treatment of people who stutter. He is the director of the Northwest Center for Fluency Disorders. For information about research, clinical or support opportunities, visit northwestfluency.org.

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Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

1 Comment

  1. Nancie Eliscar

    This article was very informative. I notice usually people who are busy do not pay much attention to other people around them especially when the person is not like him/her. Often time people are more cordial and attentive to people who are like them or view things in the same lenses. whether you are a speech therapist, counselor, or a regular person it is important to show grace to anyone you accounter because you don’t know whose life you will make a difference!

    Reply

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