Reducing the Stigma of Stuttering Through Research

J. Scott Yaruss helping a patient in stuttering therapy.

Stuttering impacts three million people in the U.S. alone and 70 million people worldwide. Research on the condition shows that those who stutter experience adverse effects of the condition in their daily lives, including decreased communication ability, a lower quality of life, underemployment and discrimination. 

J. Scott Yaruss, a professor in the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders (CSD), has studied the condition for 28 years and is determined to understand how to help by educating clinicians, conducting research and reducing the stigma of the condition in society. 

Improving Treatment Outcomes

Yaruss came to MSU in the Spring of 2017 to continue his research on stuttering in the newly opened Spartan Stuttering Lab. The lab’s mission is to educate speech therapists about how to better help those who stutter. To accomplish this, Yaruss and his team will be hosting a series of ongoing trainings for clinicians about the condition. 

“Stuttering is the least preferred area for speech therapists to work with,” Yaruss said. “A lot of clinicians aren’t comfortable working with stuttering, and that affects the therapy that people who stutter are getting.”

He began developing the Overall Assessment of the Speaker’s Experience of Stuttering (OASES) tool in 1998 while he was an assistant professor at Northwestern University. He published the tool in 2006 while he was an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh. The inspiration for designing OASES came from his desire to help clinicians effectively gather information throughout the treatment process and track their patients’ performance. The data gathered using the tool reveals how stuttering affects a person. Clinicians and faculty members all over the world are using OASES in therapy sessions, and it is currently being translated into 30 languages. 

Researching the Moment of Speech Disruption

Although stuttering has been studied for millennia, as evidenced by Egyptian hieroglyphs of the condition, there are still several gaps in the research literature about what happens during the moment of speech disruption. 

Most of the research in the field is based on when the listener hears the problem, rather than when the speaker senses the problem. This moment is experienced by the speaker before the actual disruption is heard by a listener. 

“We have preliminary findings that there’s this sense of anticipation, this sense of ‘I’m about to mess up, I’m about to have a problem’,” Yaruss said. “It’s that sensation that we don’t understand, and we’re trying to bring some advanced research tools to bear so that we can get a better sense of what it is.”

Yaruss and the team of researchers aim to discover what the speaker perceives and feels during this moment that prevents them from being able to move forward with their words. They will talk to participants about their experiences and record their communication, all while monitors measure brain activity, eye gaze, physiological measures, skin conductance and heart rate. Instead of having a listener report when they hear an issue with the speech, the participants themselves will report when they sense a problem.

“This has been dramatically understudied,” Yaruss said. “This matters because therapy might work to get people more fluent, but if they’re still feeling those disruptions under the surface and they’re only hiding that, then it's fair to ask how much we’ve really helped them.”

Other Research Interests

Stuttering differs from day to day, minute to minute, from listener to listener and from topic to topic. Yaruss and his team want to examine that variability, because there is very little understanding about the factors that contribute to it and few studies that have looked at variability for its own sake. The variability of stuttering poses a barrier to research as well as to therapy because the behavior is not constant.  

“That variability is very difficult for people to come to terms with,” Yaruss said. “Imagine having the thing that you want most in your life — to speak fluently — and you can, but then you can’t again. It comes and goes.”

One of the stages of formulating language is called phonological encoding, which occurs when we get ready to prepare the sound production instructions or phonetic plan that will be executed by our mouths to ensure smooth speech. Previous research has shown that people who stutter often process language less quickly in some aspects of phonological encoding. Yaruss and his team plan to pursue this line of inquiry in his lab by tracking eye movements to identify what stage of the language processing phase individuals are in.  

Reducing the Stigma

Yaruss used his OASES tool to analyze data from people who stutter around the world to see if individuals experience the impacts of the condition differently depending on where they live. The data revealed that people who stutter in certain countries report a lower quality of life due to their stuttering. 

He hopes to expand these findings to future studies that will examine to what extent people’s negative experiences are related to the societal views of stuttering. Yaruss hypothesizes that these societal views influence the speaker’s own opinion of themselves. Using a large-scale survey study, he hopes to find out about individual’s experiences of stuttering and match that to societal views worldwide to identify that link. With this knowledge, he wants to develop public education campaigns to reduce the stigma of stuttering. 

“From a societal standpoint, if we can reduce the stigma, improve the life experiences of people who stutter and improve their communication ability and their social interactions, then that releases them from this burden that they’re living with, and can make a real difference in their lives,” said Yaruss. 

Collaboration Opportunities at MSU

Yaruss received his undergraduate degree in linguistics and psychology from the University of California Berkeley. After searching for a path that would combine his interest in language and psychology, he received his doctorate in speech language pathology from Syracuse University

He wanted to come to MSU because he believes there’s a tremendous opportunity for collaboration on questions related to stuttering with other faculty and staff in the Department of CSD. 

“MSU is the place to be to study stuttering right now,” Yaruss said. “The reason I came here is because of the critical mass of people that are being assembled here to study stuttering. Thanks to the expertise of my colleagues here at MSU, we have the opportunity to look at stuttering from a variety of perspectives, including neurological, social, psychological, linguistic, experiential and clinical. It is this multidimensional approach that will yield great results for improving our ability to help those who stutter.”

By Rianna N. Middleton