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4 Things Not to Say to Someone With Speech-Language Disorder

Dec 11 • Experiences

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Uncertainty is an uncomfortable thing. It’s why waiting to hear back after a job interview is so nerve-wracking and why an elusive voicemail from a physician can send someone into a state of panic. The irony of the human experience is that human connection, which is essential to our well-being, is inherently uncertain. We will never know what it is like to live someone else’s life or to feel someone else’s emotions. We communicate with others to dispel uncertainty and build connections and relationships. But what happens when our attempts to dispel uncertainty end up offending - or worse yet, hurting – the people who we are trying to connect with? What we intend to communicate and what impact our words have do not always align. With all of the uncertainty around what speech and language disorders are, it is not surprising that this is a common experience for people affected by them.

In an attempt to dispel some uncertainty around which communication behaviors and words may unintentionally impact people with speech-language disorders, I will elaborate on four I have come across through my clinical practice. Please note that I do not claim to have a speech-language disorder and do not know what it is like to have someone say these things to me. However, I do know what it is like to sit across from a client who painfully recounts these episodes and tries to make sense out of them. It is as an ally for people with speech-language disorders that I share this information and welcome others to share their first-hand experiences.

Note: The format and inspiration for this blog came from Dr. Maura Cullen’s book 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say

“[Insert famous person’s name] used to stutter, but they got over it.”

INTENTION

This is typically said when someone wants to comfort a person who stutters by suggesting that they may not stutter their whole life. It is meant to communicate hope.

IMPACT

This statement is uninformed and may make a person who stutters feel frustrated and misunderstood. A person who stutters likely knows a great deal about stuttering, whether through their own research, experience, or education on the topic. If they have had the desire and resources to change their speech, they have likely invested a great amount of time, energy, and resources towards their communication goals. With that said, they are likely aware of the fact that approximately 75% of children “outgrow” stuttering (https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/stuttering) and that they did not fall into that statistic. Yes, some children “get over” stuttering, but some do not. For some, stuttering is something that they must manage throughout their lives and no amount of effort or resources will change the fact that they are a person who stutters. When someone suggests that they might “get over” their stuttering, they may feel that their efforts and identity are discounted.

BEST BET

An understanding of speech and language disorders can help inform interactions with people who are speech and/or language impaired. Understanding how and why their communication is as it is will help you make informed comments, should their speech become a conversation topic. There are wonderful resources on the topic of stuttering through the Stuttering Foundation and National Stuttering Association. Additionally, you can always feel free to direct your questions to our speech-language pathologists at The Speech Factor [link “Ask an SLP”]. Regardless of your knowledge of communication disorders, it is generally a good rule of thumb to focus in on the content of your conversation partner’s message and not on the way in which they communicate it.

For some, stuttering is something that they must manage throughout their lives and no amount of effort or resources will change the fact that they are a person who stutters.

Kelly McHugh

Finishing someone’s sentence(s) for them

INTENTION

When another person is struggling to communicate in some obvious way, it may seem cruel to just sit back and watch. Jumping in and helping them communicate their thoughts may seem like a kind thing to do.

IMPACT

This is particularly relevant to people who stutter and/or have word-finding difficulties. While it may take some people a longer time to communicate their messages, they are their messages to communicate. When someone jumps in and communicates their thoughts, it suggests that their message is not important or worth taking the time to hear. Additionally, their intent may be lost in another person’s completion of their thoughts.

BEST BET

Allowing people to share their messages regardless of how they communicate allows for a shared and meaningful interaction. If it is difficult to understand another person’s message, asking for clarification is always appreciated! This communicates to the other person that their message is important and that they are worthy of being understood.

Allowing people to share their messages regardless of how they communicate allows for a shared and meaningful interaction

Kelly McHugh

You seem so normal, you don’t look like you have autism.

INTENTION

This is typically intended to serve as a compliment. It suggests that a person is not like other people who share their diagnosis and implies that they are more “acceptable” because of that.

IMPACT

This statement could be offensive to some. If someone identifies strongly with their diagnosis, you have made it clear to them that you see people with their diagnosis as “weird.” It communicates to the person that the less they are like people who share their diagnosis, the more normal they are.

BEST BET

Using comparative language to describe someone always bears with it some level of rejection. When communicating to connect, using language that suggests acceptance tends to foster a more positive experience for everyone involved.

When communicating to connect, using language that suggests acceptance tends to foster a more positive experience for everyone involved.

Kelly McHugh

I always have trouble finding the right word too! I know how you feel.

INTENTION

This is typically said in an attempt to connect with another person. Shared experiences often create connections, so this may seem like a logical way to build rapport with someone.

IMPACT

For someone with a diagnosed word-finding impairment, having trouble finding the right word may be more than an inconvenience. It may mean that they have to keep a running list of things and people they may interact with throughout their day to accommodate their impairment or rely on alternative means of communication to get their messages across. By saying that the same thing happens to you, you are suggesting that it happens in the same way and to the same extent. For someone who significantly struggles with something, this language could make their experience feel trivialized.

BEST BET

When someone is clearly struggling with something, active listening and empathizing go a long way (e.g. saying “that must be frustrating to not be able to think of the word you want to say”)! Empathy often opens the gate to connection and may help people share their experiences in a thoughtful way.

This is by no means an exhaustive list and is intended to start a conversation around how our communication affects others. While uncertainty is uncomfortable and ever-present in our world, together we can share our experiences and build a collective awareness that connects us.

About the Author

Kelly McHugh is a CCC-SLP at Lyons Township High School and a recent graduate of Northwestern University (MS, August 2016). She received her undergraduate degree in Communication and Media Studies at St. Norbert College (BA, 2009), after which she worked for five years as a client and project manager at Millward Brown, an international marketing research firm. There she became involved in a neuromarketing project that prompted her to explore other ways in which communication sciences were being applied. Kelly started volunteering with the pediatric outpatient speech-language pathology team at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) and leading children through language interventions as a clinician at Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes. Seeing the impact that language interventions had on individuals and their families, she sought to apply her research skills and clinical interest to the field of speech-language pathology. Kelly sees the human connection as an innate, deep-rooted human need and finds great purpose in helping individuals work towards their communication goals.

Kelly McHugh

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