National Stuttering Association

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

Hi there. Nice to see you again.

Michael P. Boyle, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Montclair State University. He teaches graduate courses in stuttering and research methods, in addition to mentoring student research in the department’s M.S. and Ph.D. programs. Dr. Boyle has received awards for his teaching and research from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) and the National Stuttering Association (NSA).

He is an active researcher who has published over 25 scientific articles and book chapters in the area of stuttering. Dr. Boyle received his Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in communication sciences and disorders from Penn State University.

I’m honored to have Michael 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 Michael and learning more about his personal and professional journey.

Tell me a little about yourself. What would you like the readers to know about you?

I’m trained as a clinical language speech pathologist, but now I spend most of my time doing research and teaching. I’m on the faculty at Montclair State University. I stutter now, and I’ve stuttered since I was about three. My stuttering has changed a lot over time, which is what got me into the field. I also ran a support group for three years in graduate school. I bring a lot of different perspectives, and they all impact each other. My personal experiences inform my research, and I teach based on research. Research also informs clinical practice and the support groups. All of those pieces are interconnected.

I’m really curious about your research in the area of public stigma. Could you speak more about that?

You can only go so far with treatment if the public doesn’t understand. I look at the role of self-help and professionals in trying to reduce barriers. A lot of my research focuses on public perceptions and feelings about people who stutter – for example, emotional reactions and discrimination. There’s a general public perception that people who stutter are nervous, more timid, less assertive, or less competent. They don’t understand that people who stutter know what they want to say, they just can’t physically get it out. This breeds stereotypes.

There’s also research on how people physically react to hearing stuttering. For example, heart rate changes, and there’s more physical tension. There can be a negative affective reaction to hearing stuttering. It can also be difficult for listeners because they have trouble following it, and they’re not sure what’s going on, so it can create a more stressful interaction. Plus, communication is a two-way street, so communicating with someone who has those negative feelings can create more pressure for someone who stutters.

How do we begin to navigate those barriers? What are some approaches?

One is called “protest”: pushing back when someone in the media or otherwise prominent says something negative about stuttering and using it as an opportunity to educate. However, while this approach can stop people from being outward with their feelings, we don’t know if it’s helpful in changing people’s perspectives long-term.

Education seems to be more helpful in this regard – informing people of the latest research on stuttering and dispelling myths. For example, it’s a neurodevelopmental condition with a strong genetic component. It has nothing to do with intelligence, and it’s not caused by nervousness.

The last main approach that’s very useful is interpersonal contact – sharing personal experiences of stuttering and how it has impacted your life. Based on research, including my own, this appears to be the most powerful approach in terms of change. It’s important to talk not only about the challenges, but also about barriers you’ve overcome. You also want to present yourself in a way that goes against stereotypes by being confident and assertive, and it’s more helpful if you stutter! That’s one of the biggest things you can do to change people’s perspectives. It’s also helpful to give listeners explicit messages about how they can respond. Things are a lot easier for the speaker and the listener if you can remove the uncertainty of the situation.

How has your own stuttering changed over time, and what inspired you to go into the field?

As I said, I started stuttering around the age of three. I was definitely aware of it, and I didn’t like it. As I got older, it became more about hiding. I wanted to avoid it, so I tried to portray myself as a fluent speaker as much as I could. I thought that I was being successful because people didn’t know that I stuttered, but it was very burdensome. It came at a high cost.

Put very simply, the common thread throughout all of my therapy seemed to be: “Stuttering is bad, and we’re going to reduce it and get rid of it, because fluency is good.” I thought that everyone wanted me to be fluent, so that’s what I did. I could hide it. I could change words. I had this ability to only speak when I knew I was going to be fluent. I would also hold my breath until I felt like I could get it all out in one shot, but you can’t do that all the time.

I was always afraid of being exposed. I felt like if I talked openly, without the tricks, I would get into situations where I would get stuck, and I wouldn’t be able to get out of it. I couldn’t stand that feeling, so I would never let myself get into it. That basically went on until I was in my 20s.

In graduate school, I got to the point where my tricks didn’t work anymore. I wasn’t speaking, and I wasn’t functioning. I was in a program where I was supposed to be helping people with communication disorders, and I hadn’t come to grips with my own. That was a major turning point.

One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s good to stutter if you’ve been avoiding it, because you’ve never really dealt with it. For me, there had to be this middle ground of facing it, analyzing it, and desensitizing myself. Allowing myself to stutter in front of other people was revolutionary for me, because once I could do that, I had so much freedom and flexibility to try different things. Success became about stuttering openly and being okay with it. That experience taught me that there’s more to stuttering than meets the eye. I think that’s why my research focuses so much on the psychosocial aspects. For so many people, that’s a bigger piece of the puzzle than the actual speech strategy.

Are there any themes or broad approaches that, in general, aren’t helpful?

Everybody’s different. At the same time, I’m pretty confident that trying to figure it out yourself and go it alone is not very helpful. At the end of the day, it’s your responsibility to make changes, but it’s a pretty heavy burden if you can’t talk about it.

Continually avoiding what you fear doesn’t work long-term. You never grow, and you never learn how to cope. It’s natural to avoid what you fear, but if that fear is linked to speech and communication, it limits the shape and quality of your life long-term.

Setting goals that only look at fluency also doesn’t really work. One belief is that fixing the stuttering solves the other issues, but that’s not accurate for a lot of people who stutter: they still have a problem, even if they’re more fluent. You often have to target the cognitive, affective, and psychosocial concerns as well.

One idea I always return to is authentic communication, empowered communication and language. What role do you think all of that plays?

Not feeling confident in your communication abilities, and in yourself, is going to have a negative impact on you, regardless of whether or not you can use fluency strategies. It’s important to look at communication in general as the goal. If you’re very focused on fluency, you can lose the bigger picture. Learning basic things like how to use your voice and how to vary your pace and intonation are so important. You have to try different things, figure out what feels like you, what feels good, and when you feel courageous.

Singing and performing were incredibly therapeutic for me when I was young. They helped me connect with what felt like my authentic voice. I’ve always been fascinated by that.

There are many ameliorating conditions when it comes to stuttering, and that’s part of what has made stuttering such a puzzling condition. We don’t know all the answers, but we’re continuing to learn more. I think researchers agree that there is some underlying fundamental component, but there are a lot of different ideas and findings as to what exactly that is.

In general, some situations – like acting, singing, and reading aloud in groups – seem to activate compensatory neural networks that aren’t impaired. This idea helps to explain why stuttering is so variable both between people and for each person. An analogy I often use is that it’s a condition like asthma or diabetes: it’s triggered by certain environmental conditions or scenarios, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not an underlying physical basis for it. I think that’s important for people to know: it’s not about not trying hard enough.

We’ve talked a lot about how to bridge gaps. Are there any more thoughts on how to empower people and promote self-efficacy?

This is an important one, because at their core, therapy and self-help are about self-efficacy. As a clinician and researcher who’s looked at this, there are many strategies:

  1. Give people a lot of experience doing things they didn’t think they could do. Start small, but continually push the comfort zone in a very gradual, step by step way. Nothing promotes self-efficacy like doing the thing you want to do! You build confidence by doing it – like tying your shoes.
  2. Model. Seeing other people stutter confidently is really powerful. You’re not modeling fluency per se: you’re modeling what you do if you get yourself into a jam. It’s even more powerful if a person does this in a real-life setting!
  3. Offer encouragement, feedback, and support.

The bottom line is to embody the fact that it’s okay to stutter by conveying it in terms of how you interact, your body language, and what you say. You have to demonstrate that you’re really okay with it, because people will know if you’re not.

What’s next for you? What are you working on right now?

I’m continuing my research on stigma, but I’m also really interested in what helps to reduce both private and public stigma and what helps to make a person feel more empowered.

One thing I’m looking at in particular is the process of disclosure – what it looks like, when people do it, how they do it, and the outcomes. Many people talk about disclosure, but we really don’t understand the process of it very well, and I think that disclosure is one of the primary tools for managing stigma. If we understand it better, then we’re in a better position to help people who stutter disclose in a way that will maximize their chances for feeling good about it and will also impact the listener in a positive way.

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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