MSUToday
Published: Oct. 26, 2018

Understanding the mystery of stuttering

Contact(s): Kristina Pierson College of Communication Arts and Sciences

Research at Michigan State University’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders proves that stuttering is more than just a habit. It’s a vast, complex condition that can have lasting effects. 

“[Stuttering] is not an emotional disorder, though it can have serious emotional consequences. It is not just a bad habit that people pick up,” said professor and clinical speech-language pathologist J. Scott Yaruss.

Research has documented many cases of discrimination towards those who stutter, making it important to raise awareness and improve understanding about what the disorder truly is. 

For MSU doctoral students Seth Tichenor and Caryn Herring, stuttering is more than what they research; it is something they experience in their daily lives. Tichenor and Herring grew up with pressure to actively try to prevent or hide their stuttering, and to strive to be as fluent as possible. Even as children, both were shocked by the lack of knowledge about stuttering in their childhood therapists.

“My goals changed from wanting to be as fluent as possible to embracing the way I speak and ensuring that stuttering doesn’t hold me back,” Herring said. “I was disappointed by the lack of research and understanding of how people who stutter can desensitize themselves to stuttering related fears and how they can accept the way they talk. The research I am doing, and what inspired me to go into this field, is to better understand the adverse thoughts and feelings people who stutter might have and how we can help reduce them.”

However, researchers are not yet able to pinpoint indicators of whether a child who stutters will continue doing so, which can make it difficult to capture exactly how stuttering develops in early childhood. Assistant professor Bridget Walsh, a new faculty in CSD, investigates speech development in children who do and do not stutter using a multilevel approach.

“Stuttering is a highly heterogeneous, complex disorder,” Walsh said. “It is likely that multiple factors influence persistence and recovery in preschoolers who are stuttering, so our approach incorporates multiple measures for a more comprehensive picture of stuttering development.” 

Another new face in CSD, doctoral student Yiling Liu who, working alongside adjunt professor Soo-Eun Chang, will soon start research that uses neuroimaging to explore structural differences in the brains of children who stutter.

“More than three million people in America and 70 million worldwide are affected by stuttering,” Liu said. “We have an urgent need to know the exact underlying neural mechanism of stuttering.”

To help shed light on the enigma of stuttering, Yaruss and Tichenor are conducting the largest survey ever among people who stutter, with 400 respondents and counting.

What makes the survey unique is that it focuses on the speaker’s perspective. Previous research has emphasized the experience of the listener, limiting the understanding of what happens when someone stutters. More recent research has found that, for the speaker, the sensation of stuttering begins internally as an anticipation of difficulty speaking before it is experienced externally.

Yaruss also wants to bring virtual reality into the mix. He said it’s difficult to capture the true experience of stuttering in a therapy session because of how unpredictable situations are outside a therapy room. As a result, Yaruss is investigating whether VR can be used to create controlled conditions for those who stutter to diminish speaking anxieties

“This is a particularly exciting time to study stuttering, in part due to recent advances in genetics and neuroimaging that have shown us that stuttering likely involves specific genetic mutations,” Yaruss said.

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