As a child, Peter Ramig was often mocked because of his stutter. At the time, there wasn’t much societal understanding of the disorder, and the teasing impacted Ramig deeply. His experiences led him to pursue a career in speech pathology and he’s spent the past 40 years focusing on the therapeutic and neurological aspects of stuttering at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“There’s still a lot of misinformation out there about stuttering,” he says. “But, certainly the public is more aware of it. And, so, I don’t think you see as much mockery now as you did back when I was younger.”
Although retired, Ramig continues to travel the world bringing his demonstration therapy to places like Russia and Colombia. Online videos of his work can be found through The Stuttering Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1947 to provide resources and support for individuals and families free of charge. Ramig chatted with us about the basics of stuttering.
1. Colorado Parent: Do we know what causes stuttering?
Peter Ramig: We know that there are brain differences in people who stutter. How those differences actually create the problem, we don’t know. It’s not that they don’t have the vocabulary; not that they don’t have the intelligence. It’s a disorder of articulation. The speech production system is the most complex part of the body in terms of the nerve innervation and all the complex movements that are necessary to produce all the sounds in a word, and all the words in a sentence.
2. CP: Is there a cure?
PM: What the research shows is that about 90 percent of the people who stutter start in the preschool years. Three children out of a hundred stutter in the preschool years, but only 1 percent of those will end up becoming adult stutters. Given the right speech language pathologist, there’s a way [to make the stutter less pronounced].
Every public school has a speech-language pathologist. Unfortunately, the vast majority of those do not have a stuttering specialist certification. So, people need to know that there are specialists listed for every state (on the American Speech Language Hearing Association website) that they can call.
3. CP: What is the treatment for stuttering?
PM: With children, we tend to do more fluency shaping. That would be changing the prosodic features of speech (such as intonation, stress, and rhythm). We’re slowing it down a bit and helping the child with techniques using the original word. We want to take away the fear and the mystery of the stuttering, and one of the ways of doing that is actually playing games.
Modification (used more with adults) is changing it from a hard form of stuttering to an easier form of stuttering. It’s learning that when I force my lips together because I want to get out of this stuttering right away, I’m stopping the air flow and I can’t produce speech when that happens. It’s learning not to do that initially, to bring the lips together more easily. We can almost always tell beforehand when something’s going to happen, at least a word ahead of time. So instead of panicking, we’ve learned that we can stutter in an easy way.
4. CP: What is the psychological impact of stuttering?
PM: There’s a huge emotional or psychological byproduct of stuttering because it’s so embarrassing for the person who has it. And it certainly has an impact on how the person feels about themselves. For people who treat this disorder, they have to understand the impact of the problem. What’s equally important is counseling the parents, because it’s a devastating disorder for the whole family when the child can’t get out what they want to say.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
10 Well-known individuals who stutter:
• Actress Emily Blunt
• Actor James Earl Jones
• Actor Bruce Willis
• Vice President Joe Biden
• King George VI
• Singer Carly Simon
• Journalist and co-anchor of ABC News “Nightline” Byron Pitts
• Former Denver Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin
• Multi-sport athlete Bo Jackson
• Singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran
Virtual Event: On June 16, 2020, the Stuttering Foundation presents a free virtual discussion called Building a Supportive Community for Children Who Stutter through Peer Education. Speech-language pathologists and parents are invited to learn more about fostering a supportive communication environment for children who stutter. Expert Mary Weidner, an assistant professor in the Communication Sciences and Disorders department at Edinboro University will provide practical, evidence-based recommendations to help educate peers who do not stutter. Register for the live event.