What is a stutter? Common myths and misunderstandings.

Debunking common myths around stuttering

Although nearly everyone knows the word, unless you are a person who stutters, there can be a number of myths and misconceptions surrounding what a stutter really is.

Before we get into what stuttering is not, why don’t we start with what stuttering is?

Stuttering is an involuntary interruption to the flow of talking. This can occur in different ways:

Repeating sounds or syllables, e.g. “B b b but it’s my turn”
Repeating words, e.g. “Can can can I be next?”
Prolongations (or stretching sounds) “That fffffffish is swimming”
Blocks “I…….I like vanilla”

The severity and type of stuttering may vary in different situations and from person to person. Interruptions to the flow of speech may be accompanied by signs of tension and struggle, as well as fear, embarrassment, and anxiety. In some cases, stuttering can dominate a person’s view of themselves and their social and work relationships.

What causes it?

We do not know exactly what causes stuttering. Stuttering is thought to be a physical disorder, most likely resulting from a problem in the neural processing area involved in speech production. It also appears that a genetic pre-disposition may be involved, as stuttering often runs in families.

Is there a cure?

There is no known ‘cure’ for stuttering. There are a variety of effective treatments available for children and adults who stutter but there is no ‘magic pill’ or cure for stuttering. The best results are achieved when the stuttering is treated early in childhood, preferably before a child starts school.

So, there are the facts. But there are also a lot of common misconceptions about stuttering. We’d like to debunk a few of these.

People who stutter do so because they are nervous, stupid, or shy

This is not true. Stuttering is not caused by anxiety but rather having a stutter may make the speaker feel more anxious as they cannot predict when they will stutter or how other people will react to their stutter. People who don’t stutter often associate stuttering with feeling nervous because most people experience ‘fluency breakdowns’ when talking to a large audience or when under time pressure.  Even more important to note, is that a stutter has no relation to a person’s intelligence.

Stuttering is caused by emotional or physical trauma or stress

Stress and trauma can often make it more difficult for people who stutter to speak fluently, however they are generally not the cause of the stutter itself. Although there are some instances where physical trauma has caused a stutter (such as comedian Drew Lynch, who began to stutter after getting hit in the throat by a softball), these situations are fairly uncommon.

The reason why people stutter is still relatively unknown, but it  usually develops during early childhood, and has links to genetics.

Stuttering and stammering are two different things

Although we often hear that someone has a stammer, and not a stutter, these are actually both the same thing! They are simply different words used by people who speak American English, and British English. Much the same way British English people might call this a scone, and an American English person might call it a biscuit:


We’ve actually written an entire blog post on how stammering and stuttering are different, which you can check out here.

If you’re a person who stutters, we’d love to know what the most common myth you hear is! And if you aren’t a person who stutters, did you learn something new today?

Why don’t I stutter when I speak with an accent?

Why speaking differently can make your stutter disappear

If you are a person who stutters, you may or may not have noticed that when you put on an accent, or deliberately speak differently to how you might usually speak, that your stutter is less evident, or has even disappeared completely!

This is a well-known anomaly, and was even documented on The Project last year, by a Rotorua man who discovered he no longer stuttered when he spoke in an Irish accent.

Although it is common for people who stutter to experience this, and it’s known to occur, there is still little conclusive information as to why it happens.

Last year, we discussed why you don’t stutter when you sing, and you’ll find that the information regarding these two phenomena is fairly similar. Both singing and putting on an accent are different ways to change your voice and how you sound.

This might not sound all that linked to stuttering, however there are a few reasons why it is believed to affect how you talk.

Accents make you use your brain and mouth differently

stuttering and singingThere has been some research on the phenomenon, with The University of Iowa concluding that “music is an activity in which you use the right side of the brain (language uses the left), so when you sing music, you’re no longer using your left brain (and probably no longer stuttering).”

It could potentially be understood that this is similar to what is happening when you put on an accent.

Another theory, is that you are using your mouth and vocal cords differently when you put on an accent. Accents, like singing, require us to make different shapes and pronounce words differently to how we might usually. When putting on an accent, you may have to emphasise sounds and letters differently to your normal way of speaking, and as a result you may find this reduces your stutter.

So why not put on an accent all the time?

If you are a person who stutters, who has found that putting on an accent reduces your stutter, you might be considering speaking in an accent for the rest of your life. However, as a long-term solution this isn’t something our Speech Language Therapists necessarily encourage.

This is for two main reasons:

The first, is that as you use the accent more and more, this will become your normal speaking voice, and therefore the reduction in stuttering may not last in the long term.

The second reason, is that not only is it unreasonable to expect someone can put on an accent 24/7 in order to mask their stutter, it’s ultimately masking who they are.

Your stutter is part of who you are, and while an Irish accent might be fun every now and then, unless you are Irish then this accent is not part of who you are.

We know it’s been said many times before, but be yourself!

Is stuttering genetic?

For the most part.

We know that’s not the most clear answer, however stuttering is quite a complicated condition that experts still don’t know everything about – as a result, answers to seemingly simple questions can be quite lengthy.

When people discuss genetics, they often are asking if there is one single gene that dictates whether a person stutters, is deaf, has blue eyes etc and if these genes are passed down among relatives. However, genetics is far more complicated than that, and often there are numerous – if not hundreds – of genes that dictate even the smallest of attributes. And of course, not all personal attributes are related to genetics.

However, when it comes to stuttering, what we know is that in most? – but not all – instances, stuttering is genetic, in that it was passed down through family members.

In what situations does this happen?

is stuttering geneticAnna Hearne, our Massey University -based Speech Language Therapist says “children who stutter often have a family history of stuttering however the relationship between genetics and stuttering is far from clear. About 70% of those who stutter have a family history of stuttering, so a family history isn’t necessary for stuttering to develop. There are even cases of identical twins, who share the same genetic material, where one twin stutters and the other doesn’t.”

If you are person who stutters, then there is approximately a 70% chance that there is a person in your family who also stutters. However your stutter may not necessarily look (or sound) identical to theirs. Simply because they are more likely to stutter with certain words, letters, or sounds, or their stutter involves prolonged sounds or repetitions, does not mean that your stutter will also resemble this.

Another factor that makes the genetics of stuttering complicated, is that it seems to differ amongst men and women. The fact that stuttering is more likely to happen to males is something well-documented, and which we’ve discussed before, however, this ratio is far different if it is an inherited stutter. If there is a relative who stutters, then the case of inherited stuttering becomes 1 female to every 1.5 males, as opposed to 1 female to every 7 or 8 males.

This only serves to complicate the matter, and there is still plenty of research to be done around this.

Group therapy

Regardless, there is one thing we would like to make clear, which is that the fact that stuttering runs in families is due to genetics and not because stuttering is contagious or children are learning to stutter by copying a family member. Sometimes parents of children who stutter ask whether it’s possible that their child is subconsciously copying another person who stutters, but this is absolutely not true.

If you or someone in your family is a person who stutters, we welcome you to get in touch with us to find out how we can support you.

Is there a cure for stuttering?

The short answer is no.

There is no known cure for stuttering, and like any other speech disorder, it requires therapy and practice to treat or manage it, and while some people report that their stutter suddenly “disappears”, for most adults who stutter they will continue to do so for their entire lives.

The long answer is, however, a little more complex than that.

While there is no magic pill or cure that will stop a person stuttering, there are effective tools you can use to manage your stutter.  Working with a speech language therapist who specialises in stuttering can be beneficial for people who stutter, for both their communication skills and their confidence.

Young children who stutter

speech therapy group stutteringStuttering among children is far more common than among adults with approx 10% of children developing a stutter at some stage in the preschool years. However, for unknown reasons, likely linked to the still developing brain, many pre-school children naturally stop stuttering and don’t require therapy.

Stuttering is best treated during the preschool years so the best advice we can give parents is to please give us a call if your child begins to stutter. This way, we can determine whether your child needs to come in for an initial assessment (children under 6 years get their initial appointment free!), or whether parents are better to monitor their child’s stuttering for a period before we decide together if therapy is required.

Contact the START team to receive specialist advice and peace of mind knowing you’ve spoken to the experts first.

Pre-teens and teens who stutter

Generally speaking, pre-teens and teens who stutter are likely to have been stuttering since they were a child. If they have yet to speak to a Speech Language Therapist, we highly recommend you set up an appointment with one of our team so they can discuss the options available to them for help and support.

At this age, young people may have developed communication related anxiety and confidence issues as a result of their stutter. Because stuttering only affects 1% of the population, often young people have not met anyone else who stutters, and this can make them feel isolated.  Meeting other people their age who also stutter is a great way to meet others who face the same challenges and therefore helps to increase confidence.

We offer courses that teach tools to manage stuttering and meet others who stutter in a supportive environment.  The video below features a young teen attending one of our courses.

Adults who stutter

Adults who stutter are likely to have been living with their stuttering since childhood.  Adults who stutter are likely to have had treatment in the past (which may or may not have been helpful).  However often at significant transition points such as finishing study and applying for jobs it can be helpful to review techniques and receive support from a Speech Language Therapist. 

If you are looking at re-engaging with speech language therapy, please make an appointment with one of our team so that we can discuss your options; whether your needs are around confidence, speech techniques, or meeting others who stutter. We have a range of options available such as individual therapy, intensive week long courses, a mentoring program and social opportunities.

The truth is, while many people are looking for a “cure” for their stutter, there simply isn’t a quick fix available. A more helpful way of handling or living with stuttering can be having confidence in yourself and seeing your stutter as a part of who you are rather than something you should try and ‘get rid of’ or ‘hide’. However, we recognise that it can also be very beneficial to learn techniques and tools to manage your stutter.

5 ways to help someone who stutters

If you’re someone who doesn’t stutter, you might have a number of questions about what to do when talking to someone who does, and how you can best help them. If you’re worried you might offend them, or you’re unsure of the best way to phrase a question, then read on.

Support and therapy - mentoring

As with everything else, people who stutter are all very different, and as a result, individuals may have their own preferences on what they want listeners to do when they are stuttering. For instance, it’s generally considered that the cardinal rule of helping a person who stutters is to let them finish their sentence, but there are still a few people who stutter who prefer others to finish their sentences for them – to “get it over with” as some have described it. It’s good practice to always ask someone what they prefer, but if you’d rather avoid it, then it’s best to let them finish.

So, other than letting them finish, what are other ways you can help a person who stutters?

  1. Don’t tell them how to stop stuttering

Unless you are a qualified Speech Language Therapist, it usually isn’t helpful if you tell them how to stop stuttering, or if you’ve found a cure. The majority of people who stutter have done so most of their lives, and have likely been through therapy and done their own research on how to improve their fluency. There is no known cure, and often anecdotes of your own family members or acquaintances who have cured their stutter will not help the person you are talking to.

  1. Don’t make jokes about stuttering

Although stuttering remains a punchline for many comedians, writers, and everyday people, it’s often no laughing matter for a person who stutters. It can be an extremely debilitating experience, and to find that your dysfluency is the butt of a joke can be tough.

  1. Let them know you are here to talkis there a cure for stuttering

Stuttering can be very isolating, and people who stutter often feel as though they miss out on social interactions that other people have. If someone in your life stutters, make sure they know that you’re there for them, and that you support them. Letting them finish their sentences is the first step, but being a great friend is even better. Listening actively and making sure they know it’s ok to talk about stuttering with you is a great way to help a person who stutters.

  1. Stand up for them

While we hope there never comes a time that a person who stutters is bullied, or discriminated against either at school, in the workplace, or anywhere else, the reality is that these situations can still happen. If a person who stutters in your life is experiencing negativity or discrimination, it’s important that you discuss it with them and stand up for them.

  1.  Stand with them

Every person who stutters is different. Some prefer to accept their stutter and leave it as is, while others are more interested in treatment and exercises to help with fluency and confidence. Some find that they have anxiety due to their stutter, whereas others don’t. Some prefer you to speak for them, while others want you to let them finish. If there is a person in your life who stutters, find out what works best for them, and stand with them in their decisions.

Stuttering vs stammering – what’s the difference?

Very occasionally, we have people asking us what the distinction is between stammering and stuttering. It’s an understandable question, and with the two words floating around it’s difficult to tell which is the right one to use.

We’re here to set the record straight, once and for all.

There is no difference – sort of.

A quick Google search will give you a number of answers, with many people claiming that a stutter is the repetition of letters, whereas a stammer is the blocking and prolongations. There are others who say it is a clinical distinction used by professionals, and there are some who claim that a stutter is something you are born with and a stammer is something you develop due to trauma or nerves.

The reason that both stutter and stammer exist and describe the same speech dysfluency is because stammer is a mostly British term, whereas stutter is largely used in the US, as well as New Zealand and Australia.

A great explanation of this is by Lynne Murphy, a linguist who writes the blog ‘Separated by a Common Language’. Lynne has used her extensive knowledge of linguistics, as well as some fantastic Googling to find how the terms are used and when, and more importantly where. Her conclusion is:

“If it is the case that stammering and stuttering are different things, then it looks like in the 1960s, they found a cure for stammering in America, and somehow that accidentally brought on more stuttering. Of course that’s not what happened. What happened is that stutter took over in [American English] as the usual term.”

This is a great explanation of the phenomenon, and puts the case to rest.

There are only 2 ways in which stutter and stammer are different:

  • One is used predominantly by American English speakers, while the other is predominantly used by British English speakers.
  • One has two extra T’s and a U, while the other has two M’s and an A

If you’re interested in more interesting facts about stuttering, head to our FAQ page and have all your questions answered!

5 ways you can help our charity that aren’t just donating money

(although we’d appreciate that too!)

As a charity, a lot of what makes our world go around is the support we receive from the community – but there’s a misconception that to help a charity you need to donate money. We’re here to dispel the rumours, and show you 5 ways you can support us without donating money! Unless you want to, in which case you can donate here.

1 . Volunteer your time

Our organisation is a relatively small charity with big goals. We know that there are roughly 45,000 people in New Zealand who stutter and we’d love to reach them all – but that takes people-power. To get to where we want to be we need to put the time in to make our charity work like a well oiled machine, and having volunteers work with us is a rewarding and fun way for you to be able to give back. Jacqui, who volunteers her time with us helping to streamline our booking process, says that volunteering with START “is really rewarding. It’s so special to see our SLTs work with the kids, and it feels good to know that there’s a place for people to go to get support.”

  1. Volunteer your expertise

As we work hard to get our charity in front of as many Kiwis as possible, we’ve found a real need for digital savvy support. Our website, PR, and other aspects of getting the word out about stuttering are all areas of our charity that require some additional expertise. If you have skills in an industry or area that you think could benefit our organisation, even in some small way, we would love to hear from you and see how we can get you on board!

  1. Purchase a copy of our book ‘My Stutter’

Last year for International Stuttering Awareness Day, we received a number of wonderful submissions from Kiwi kids who stutter, and compiled their art, poetry, and essays on stuttering into a charming book titled ‘My Stutter’. This book is a fantastic coffee-table book and conversational piece to get Kiwi’s to discuss and understand what a stutter is, and what it is like to grow up with one. Even better, all of the profits from this book go directly to our charity to help us support more Kiwi kids who stutter. You can purchase a copy here.

  1. Share your story

One of the greatest struggles we have is to share stories and anecdotes of our clients – understandably! Having a stutter can be a very personal experience that many don’t wish to share, however only with openness and shared experiences can we reach more Kiwis who may need help and support. Being open to sharing your story in the form of a testimonial, or even to be interviewed for a short video is one of the most important ways you can support our charity. We rely on these human stories to help others, and it would be the most valuable way to help us if you have worked with us. If you are interested in sharing your story, please email us at support@start.org.nz.

  1. Spread the word

The easiest way to support us is to get the message out! We need you guys to be out there as our raving fans, and it’s as simple as liking, commenting and sharing our Facebook posts, or sharing this blog post with your friends. If you have media contacts, or know a person who stutters, sharing our message and our services can make a real change. It’s as easy as clicking a button but it can help our organisation in more ways than we could count.

If you think you can help our charity, please contact us at support@start.org.nz and we’d love to hear from you!

Why don’t we stutter when we sing?

Have you ever noticed that you don’t stutter when you sing?

Or if you’re a person who doesn’t stutter, have you ever wondered why you’ve never heard someone stutter while singing? If you watch the video below of Harrison Craig – season 2 winner of The Voice Australia 2013 – you’ll understand how big the change between speaking and singing can be for someone who stutters.

It’s an interesting observation, and there’s no single answer for why this phenomenon occurs. Scientists and researchers have worked hard to answer many difficult questions about stuttering, however when it comes to the singing debate, there are a few strong theories.

Singing occurs in a different part of the brain:

The University of Iowa has done some research on this topic, and have concluded that “Music is an activity in which you use the right side of the brain (language uses the left), so when you sing music, you’re no longer using your left brain (and probably no longer stuttering).”

This is an interesting observation and could very well be why singing is unaffected by stuttering.

We use our vocal cords and mouths differently when singing:

It’s true that in order to sing (well), we need to alter the way we use our vocal cords, as well as how we shape our tongues and mouths. There is a theory that this could have a part to play in why people don’t stutter when they sing and is attributed as one of the potential reasons by The Stuttering Foundation of America.

Here at START we think it could be a combination of our using our vocal cords and mouths differently as well as singing activating a different part of the brain. As one of our SLT Voon Pang says; “the brain controls the mouth, so if the brain is telling the mouth to do something different then I suppose this could be one of the reasons why we don’t stutter when we sing.”

Singing is a different form of communication than most speaking:

Most communication is two-way. It involves an unpredictable conversation, where you can’t plan your next answer. It also holds the potential for the other person or people to interrupt, or to become impatient. Singing, however, is mostly one-way communication, and eliminates the possibility for these challenges. We have often memorised the  lyrics when we sing, rather than facing an unpredictable conversation, and unless we are at karaoke it’s unlikely anyone in the audience is planning to interrupt.

We have had many parents comment that when a child is playing by themselves, or talking to themselves, that their stutter is not present. This could be similar to why one-way communication in singing reduces stuttering.

These three theories may or may not be the reason why we don’t stutter when we sing, it may be a combination of the three, or it could even be something else. The truth is, there is still a lot of research to be done.

What we do know, however, is that while singing, putting on an accent, or otherwise altering the way you speak can reduce stuttering, it is still not a permanent cure – it’s unreasonable to expect  someone to alter their speech 24/7. However if you are concerned about your stutter, please speak to one of our Speech Language Therapists first, before resorting to singing for the rest of your life.

What does a donation to our charity do?

If you’ve ever thought about donating to a charity or a cause, it’s likely you’ve also then wondered about where that money goes. This is a pretty fair question – you’ve worked hard for your money and you want to know that you’re making it go as far as it can.

For many charities, it’s difficult to track where the money goes or how it’s used – and in some unfortunate cases, donations go towards things the donor didn’t want.

We’re proud to say this isn’t how we work at START

As a registered charity, we rely on grants, funding, and donations to help us run, and we are fully transparent about where that money goes.

After operational costs such as rent, salaries, and other important factors, the money we receive goes towards making sure every person in New Zealand who stutters is able to access treatment. While we do have a $60/$45 fee for our sessions, we have a subsidy plan and sliding scale in place as an option for those who find the cost difficult.

The truth is, even though $60/$45 sounds like a lot, to truly cover our costs we would need to charge at least $100 per session. This is something we don’t want to do!

It is so important to us that every Kiwi who stutters has access to the treatment they need, and cost should not be a barrier to receiving support. In fact, we would really like to be in the position one day where we can offer our services for free to everyone.

To get to that point however, we need more support, and donating to our charity is a great way to help us achieve this goal. It costs approximately $1,000 for a preschool child to receive treatment for their stuttering, and if you were to donate even a portion of that, you would be making a massive difference in that child’s life – for their whole life.

Your donation could make a real difference in the lives of Kiwis who stutter, and it would make sure that your hard earned money goes as far as shaping a child’s entire life.

To make a donation today, head to our givealittle page and make a difference.

It’s not all about individual therapy

Why we run groups and courses in conjunction with treatment

Over the years we’ve stopped and started our groups and courses while we worked to find the best fit for our clients, but for the past 5 years we’ve really found our feet in terms of what works best. As someone who stutters, or a parent of a child who stutters, you might wonder why we recommend groups and courses in conjunction or even instead of individual therapy – and which option is best for your circumstances.

The groups and courses we run cover a wide range of topics and age groups and include:

Confident Communicators Group

  • Suitable for children aged 7-10
  • Includes 4 sessions over the course of the year
  • Is a fantastic opportunity for kids to meet others in their age group who also stutter and to make lifelong friends
  • An enjoyable way for children to explore their stutter and how it affects them

Fluency and Confidence Course

  • Suitable for children  aged 11-13
  • Is a 3 day course
  • Provides techniques to manage stuttering
  • Is a fantastic opportunity for kids to meet others in their age group who also stutter and to make lifelong friends

Intensive Fluency Course

  • We hold separate courses for teens and adults
  • Run as a 5 day intensive course
  • Provides techniques to manage stuttering and improve confidence
  • Offers the opportunity to meet others who stutter in a supportive environment

As you can see, there’s a wide variety for everyone, and while the main theme of each is to improve confidence as well as understand speech techniques to manage stuttering, what we’ve found is most valuable with these groups and courses is the social aspect.

Studies, as well as our own observations, have shown that stuttering can be a deeply isolating experience, and that the opportunity to have supportive and relatable interactions can be hugely beneficial for a person who stutters.

The groups and courses offer the opportunity for the person who stutters to be able to meet others like them, and understand their own experiences a bit better. Finding someone who relates to you and who you relate to in return is an invaluable experience for anyone, and this is no different for someone who stutters.

We also run social days for our younger clients, and a mentoring programme for adults looking for a supportive learning relationship with a peer. If you or someone you know could benefit from the social and supportive aspects of our groups and courses, please get in contact with us and we would love to help.