In this latest piece by NSA Spotlight Writer Jamie Wolff, Jamie sits down with SLP Caryn Herring to bridge the gap between speech professionals and people who stutter.

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Hi there. Nice to see you again.

Caryn Herring, M.S., CCC-SLP is a person who stutters, an SLP, and a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University. Her research interests include the process of desensitization and the role of voluntary stuttering. She co-hosts StutterTalk’s “B-Team” and is on the board of directors of Friends – The National Association of Young People Who Stutter. Caryn is actively involved with SAY: The Stuttering Association for the Young and the National Stuttering Association.

I’m honored to have Caryn join this Spotlight interview series – a series to help bridge the gap between PWS, therapy, and support by sharing personal and professional journeys that empower PWS to figure out what works for them (because stuttering is one size fits none).

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Caryn and learning more about her personal and professional journey.

Tell me a little about yourself, Caryn! What would you like the readers to know about you, personally and professionally?

So much of my life is related to stuttering that it’s almost hard to piece them apart…For most of my life, I was very covert with my stuttering. My main goal was to hide it and appear fluent, and I learned to do that really well. In undergrad, it started getting more in my way. I wasn’t introducing myself to people, and there was so much fear. It wasn’t the college experience that I wanted to have.

That was when I found the NSA. It was the first time I saw adults who stutter do so in a confident way. They could effectively communicate, and there was so much more spontaneity! Seeing communication as fun was a new idea. It changed my mindset from “In order to do the things I want to do, and in order to communicate well, I must be fluent.” It wasn’t a fast switch. It was years and years of spending significant time practicing speech tools, because I felt embarrassed and ashamed, before I was able to stutter openly and say what I wanted to say.

The NSA chapter meetings were huge for me at that time. I also listened to the podcast StutterTalk nonstop to normalize stuttering and desensitize myself. Over time, I learned that communicating effectively was more important to me than fluency.

What does communication mean to you?

I think communication is the ability to clearly articulate ideas and portray what you want to say. Some people who stutter communicate really well, some people who stutter don’t communicate really well, and some people who do not stutter don’t communicate well! I don’t think that stuttering is a core piece of effective communication.

Fear of stuttering and trying to avoid it can greatly impact communication. If you don’t speak, you don’t stutter, but you also don’t communicate. Spontaneity and enjoying communication are very important to me. It’s also valuable to be open about stuttering – self-disclosing, easing my communication partner, and making sure they know I have a pretty thick skin. If there’s something they’d like to ask about, or something they didn’t understand, I’d rather they ask me. I’d much prefer to say it again than for you to pretend that you understand.

It sounds like you’ve developed a very empowering relationship. I use the word “relationship”, because that’s how I think of my own stutter. It’s a partnership, and I respect it like a person. It’s a helpful perspective, especially when I’m frustrated. 

That makes so much sense, because it’s not a linear path. There are still days or conversations where I think, “Wow. That was really hard,” or when I choose not to say everything I want to say. I let myself have that! I don’t have to be a “perfect stutterer” all the time.

What inspired you to go into the field?

I was originally motived to go into the field in high school. In 10th grade, I started seeing a speech therapist for the first time. I thought for sure that there would be a pill, or something to make it go away. I never saw anybody else stutter, so I thought there must be a cure I just didn’t know about yet.

When I found out that wasn’t true, I was a little bit shook – and shocked. My motivation to go into the field at that point was very self-centered. I didn’t like that part of myself, and I didn’t want to do any work to change the way I felt. I just really wanted it to be gone. However, as I met more people who stuttered, and as I became more comfortable with myself, I recognized that stuttering wasn’t something I wanted to necessarily wipe away.

Desensitization helped me the most. Doing difficult things like going out to a store and advocating for myself were so helpful – saying, “I stutter, so I need a little more time. Please don’t finish my words” and doing things I wanted to do even though I was scared.

I was shocked that the majority of research and evidence-based practice was judged by fluency. Evidence-based practice is key, but there was limited research on the role of desensitization or how can we reduce the impact that stuttering has on someone’s life. It’s much easier to count how many times someone stutters and to write a goal around fluency. So, I was inspired to add research to the stuttering literature that measures the success of therapy beyond fluency.

What do you think are some common misconceptions about stuttering support?

One common misconception within our field is that speech therapy and stuttering support can’t go hand in hand. You’re either doing speech therapy, or you’re throwing in the towel and embracing stuttering – without doing anything else. That’s so far from the truth.

Having a spot to vent and hearing that someone else is going through the similar things normalizes stuttering. There’s some real peace in not struggling alone – seeing that even people who seem to have it all together have some hard times and knowing that that’s fine!

It’s also helpful to have time in speech therapy, where you can learn what to do. For example, you can work on ways to self-disclose and practice doing that, or preparing for a job interview.

What are some strategies or approaches that aren’t helpful?

I think it boils down to the goal of fluency. When the goal is fluency, I think a lot of things fall apart. Stuttering becomes more tense and hard, and communication is less effective. Fluency often occurs as a byproduct of focusing on communication, but the amount of fluency is not “good” or “bad.” The most important thing is feeling good about yourself and how you talk and saying and doing everything you want to say and do. Then stuttering doesn’t feel quite so hard.

Performing and public speaking both helped me connect with my authentic voice and develop a more empowering relationship with my stutter. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.

My authentic voice wasn’t something that I thought about at all until I did fluency shaping therapy. The goal was to be fluent by changing your rate of speech, speaking slower, and connecting sounds. Everything sounded stretched out and blurred. I thought, “Wow! I’m so fluent and so in control, because I’m literally controlling every sound that I make.” But it wasn’t me. I felt like I couldn’t express myself!

I change my intonation and pitch a lot when I speak, and I stripped that away and put it back in a very artificial way. For me, being authentic is not needing to plan what I’m going to say and think in such a deep way about what sound I’m going to make. I also think it’s possible that stuttering is just something I do and the way that I talk, so talking in any way that’s not that isn’t authentically me.

When I was young, I believed that I would have freedom someday, when I didn’t stutter. But there’s such freedom in simply speaking your voice! So many people could benefit from that. I’ve learned a lot along my own journey. What have you learned along yours? 

I’ve learned that I have a lot more to say than I once gave myself credit for. I taught myself at a young age that having to talk is just too hard, and it’s not worth it. I believed that what I had to say wasn’t important enough to go through the struggle of stuttering and to make anyone else have to listen. Now I feel that what I have to say is worth it. Whether it takes me three seconds or twenty, the person’s going to have to wait!

How does someone who stutters figure out what works for them? 

So much of it comes back to what the person wants. What is it that’s driving them to seek help? A common first response is, “I want to be fluent.” As an SLP, I always try to dig past that and ask, “What would being fluent mean? How would your life change if you didn’t have to think about stuttering?” For most people, it’s not just fluency: it’s doing things that stuttering holds them back from.

There’s no one right way. If someone wants to work on speech tools and controlling their fluency more, that’s 100% fine! There’s no prescription. Some of it is having space to play – trying things out and seeing what helps. What might be worth trying again, and what’s not?

Any thoughts on how we can bridge that gap between people getting support and not getting support?

There have been times when the therapy world and the support world were really far apart, and then they completely meshed, and now I feel like they’ve drifted apart again. I think the stuttering self-help movement began because people who stutter decided they needed to be around other people who knew on a personal level what they were going through. They wanted to change the vocabulary to “There’s nothing that we need to fix.” With time, SLPs got more involved in the support world – which is great, but it’s also such a fine line! We want SLPs to be involved in support, and we absolutely want it to be inclusive. We want everyone to be allies – while still understanding that the support and self-help world began because it’s important for PWS to have autonomy and their own space.

Speaking of work, what is next for you?

I’m working on my dissertation. I’m really interested in voluntary stuttering as a form exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is done a lot in the psych world. Purposely stuttering and exposing yourself to it can be really desensitizing, but there’s really no research looking at how voluntary stuttering impacts the way someone thinks and feels. I’d love to see if voluntary stuttering holds any benefits beyond greater fluency, which isn’t really my end goal.

Jamie Wolff

Jamie (aka James) is a New York creative arts therapist – turned personal trainer – turned health coach and curriculum developer. As a person who stutters, Jamie has never let her stutter hold her back, instead saying: ‘When it comes to making decisions and taking risks, if anything, my stutter pushes me to succeed’. As a writer Jamie believes that stories matter; the stories we share and the stories we tell ourselves – they matter. 

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