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[ James Earl Jones ]
James Earl Jones developed his remarkable acting voice during his teen years and is fluent as long as he uses it.


Research Vs. Anecdote: Who Do You Believe?

ne of the most frustrating things about searching for accurate information about stuttering is that there are so many conflicting claims and counter claims. One thing that is good to remember is that no "research" results should even be considered to represent "fact" unless they are published in a peer-reviewed journal. And even then, the methods of the study should be carefully evaluated to make certain no "confounds" or statistical errors are present. For example, any research paper that purports to be widely applicable to all stutterers but uses only volunteers from a stuttering support group should mention this limiting factor, particularly if it concerns attitudes about stuttering.

"Research" on the success of therapy programs is particularly suspect. The samples used in these studies may not be a valid. For example, one such "research" study claims a greater than 90% "success" rate for one approach, but fails to mention that the sample includes only those who continued to employ the particular fluency technique taught at the clinic. Of course, the sample population didn't include those who stopped using the "technique" because it didn't work for them. . . You get the idea.

Anecdotes are often misleading, of course. For example, the wonderful actor and gentleman James Earl Jones (pictured above) is commonly thought of as a "cured" stutterer. He began his recovery when a teacher encouraged him to read his own poetry aloud from the back of a classroom, requiring him to use fluency-enhancing techniques that were different than his "normal" speech. Mr. Jones has managed to develop situational fluency when he is acting a role, which allows him to speak with more mouth movement and continuous phonation than is common in his rapid, everyday speech and (possibly) recreating the fluent situation created by his childhood teacher (so-called "clinic fluency.") But he still stutters rather noticeably when speaking spontaneously; something that doesn't hinder his ability to communicate very effectively, it should be added.

The other thing we've learned is that anecdotal "data" about stuttering (including much of the information provided on my Web site) should not be considered universally applicable to individual cases of stuttering. Theories of stuttering causality (again, including any theories or hypotheses provided or linked to here) are even more suspect when applied to individual cases. They can be interesting to consider, and may provide insights, but that's all. And it is important to remember that many people have essentially recovered their fluency without becoming philosophers.

Using Research or Anecdotes to Predict Success in Therapy

One occasionally encounters well-meaning, but ultimately damaging, people who think they're helping people who stutter by relaying their own story of a miraculous recovery from stuttering and providing step-by-step instructions or advice. This is the "I did it -- so can you" syndrome; or even worse, the "my (friend, father, brother, etc.) did it -- so can you" syndrome. (These might even be worse than the "I can't do it -- and neither can you" syndrome.) It takes considerable discipline for people who have essentially regained fluency to remember exactly what it was like to stutter severely and to respect the fact that the process of recovery has its own time scale, logic, and degree of fluency for different individuals. One can't blame recovered stutterers for their enthusiasm. But one can hope that people who lack this discipline won't pass themselves off as speech therapists.

There are many varieties of stuttering, including some rare cases that appear to be almost entirely psychological in nature. There are also cases of stuttering -- typically of sudden onset and occurring in late childhood or adulthood -- that appear to be triggered by physical or mental trauma, or by a very slow neuro-psychological development process. There are also many degrees of severity of stuttering of all types. Given this variety, it is just not constructive for a moderate-to-severe, developmental "garden variety" stutterer to measure his own progress by the achievements of others; who may come from these other populations.

There are a few people around (Nick Tunbridge, author of The Stutterer's Survival Guide comes to mind), who have excellent advice for stutterers who have learned so-called "fluency techniques" and want to dramatically improve their fluency. People with useful advice like Nick don't try to claim that everyone can (or should) do exactly what they're done, or claim that stuttering can be cured by "turning off a switch in your head" or faking an accent, or changing your attitude toward stuttering, or "quitting" stuttering like smoking or thumb-sucking, or just by changing the way you think.

Finally, any therapy approach that relies for its success on the accuracy of a particular theory of stuttering or a single technique or "trick" should be examined very carefully. Therapy is a healing art and should be based on good science. But most approaches don't succeed through strict adherence to a particular academic theory or hypothesis. There is a growing practical and experiential basis for knowing what works in stuttering therapy. One of these days, research may show us why some things work for some people and not for others and why some people appear to have chronic, persistence, irresolvable stuttering no matter how hard they work or what they do or try.

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1994 - 2006 Darrell M. Dodge, MA, CCC-SLP

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Last Updated: Saturday, March 21, 2009