Understanding Covert Stuttering – A Brief Guide

by Team Stamurai

“What stutter? You talk smoothly!” “You definitely don’t stutter. I haven’t heard you get stuck even once in the last 20 minutes” – these are comments people who stutter covertly have been hearing everytime they want to advertise their stutter.

What’s worse than stuttering? No one believing that you actually stutter and that you put in immense effort, every waking moment, to pass yourself off as fluent.

Only 1% of the world stutters. Many of us, in our effort to sound like the majority, hide our stutters. We may have hidden them since elementary school or high school, ever since we became conscious of our speech disfluency.

We have avoided saying words that we fear, we have substituted words, and we have simply chosen to remain quiet in situations that may have triggered our stutters.

Now, we sound fluent and we pass as fluent seemingly effortlessly.

However, is it truly effortless? We have to deal with the anxiety and anticipation of stuttering long before we begin speaking. We have to constantly keep updating our feared words list. Our vocabulary is expansive, and every time we come face-to-face with a feared word we comb through it for a synonym.

It is time that we speak out about covert stuttering, but before that, let’s find out a little more about what it is, what causes covert stuttering and what are the treatments for stuttering covertly.

What Is Covert Stuttering?

Today, research shows that around 1% of the world’s population stutters. However, some researchers also mention that the number can be significantly bigger since no one knows how many people hide their stutter.

Some say that the number of people who stutter is a lot more than 70 million, but we don’t get a fair estimate because many of them don’t stutter openly or overtly.

So, how do we define covert stuttering?

Well, covert stuttering may refer to the following –

  • Omission – A person may anticipate a stutter and avoid the trigger words altogether. There are instances where people have had their names changed officially or introduced themselves by their nicknames to avoid stuttering.
  • Substitution – A person who stutters may substitute one word for another. For example, instead of saying “big” the person can say “immense” or “ample.”
  • Escape or avoid – A person can entirely avoid situations, or choose actions like yawning, coughing, clearing their throat to avoid stuttering overtly.
  • Introversion – A person may appear to be quiet or introverted in social situations that demand talking.

Covert stuttering is less studied due to its nature.

A person who stutters covertly can change words and avoid people or situations that may trigger their stutter. These serve as the typical symptoms for covert stuttering.

It’s entirely possible that someone who stutters covertly has never spoken about stuttering to anyone.

How Does Covert Stuttering Hurt The Speaker?

Stuttering can be a well-kept secret for many covertly disfluent speakers. Almost every person who stutters has hidden a stutter or avoided saying a particularly difficult word once in a while.

However, making it a daily practice to hide one’s stuttering from their friends, colleagues and even family takes a severe toll on mental health. It can increase fear, shame, and anxiety in someone who has to carefully choose their words and navigate conversations to hide their stuttering.

According to research, stuttering covertly can have a long-term impact on a person’s mental health. Anger, frustration, helplessness, speech anxiety, low confidence levels and low self-esteem are all problems associated with covert stuttering symptoms .

Personal Accounts Of Covert Stuttering

According to Berit Løkken, someone who stutters covertly, she has never spoken to anyone about her stuttering other than Hilda Sønsterud. Her doctoral thesis is on stuttering.

Løkken resorted to covert stuttering after she was bullied at school. Saying her own name was difficult which caused her to withdraw from social introductions. She became more introverted by the day. Finally, she mastered the skill of hiding her stutter by avoiding words that trigger her stuttering.

Her struggle to remain fluent goes largely unnoticed. Berit Løkken is one of the many people who stutter covertly and just like them she has repeatedly been told that she is not a “stutterer”.

Michael Punzi, another 23-year old male college graduate states that he began stuttering covertly after he noticed that his speech was different from the others in elementary school. His parents assured him that he’d “grow out” of it.

He never grew out of it. Instead he quickly learned how to hide his stutter. It was his firm belief that he could get rid of his stutter if he tried hard enough. Instead of allowing him to accept and embrace his stuttering, this pushed him further into denial for more than a decade.

Even during his college years, he chose to remain quiet in class, avoided asking questions and minted his words very carefully during presentations.

Only when he had to present in front of a large group he accepted and advertised his stuttering problem. That was one of the first times he felt relieved and deeply appreciated by his peers and professor.

Evaluating Covert Stuttering

Not much is known about covert stuttering since people who stutter covertly typically hide it well. Some studies show that a few factors tend to perpetuate it.

  • Fear – what’s worse that stuttering? The fear of it. Anticipation and fear of sounding different, looking different or a secret being discovered often makes people hide their disfluency. Some do it well enough to pass as fluent speakers.
  • Guilt – if a child grows up thinking that stuttering is their fault, they can develop covert stuttering at an early age. This is typically difficult to detect, since the person  often feels guilty of making listeners uncomfortable with their disfluencies.
  • Shame – stuttering attracts mockery, stigma and bullying. Sadly, several people who stutter are ashamed of how they sound. Embracing one’s stuttering isn’t easy, but shame can feed a person’s denial.
  • Denial – a person who stutters may not be ready to accept their speech disfluency. In such a situation, they might evade situations that can cause them to stutter. They may be in denial of the need for therapy.

Sadly, the evaluation of covert stuttering isn’t easy due to the overlay of the several psychological factors that prompt PWS to hide their stuttering.

Treatment of Covert Stuttering

Today, the treatment for stuttering is available and accessible to almost anyone and everyone across the globe, thanks to speech therapy apps like Stamurai.

Conventional therapy and stuttering treatment can help adults reduce their disfluencies over time.

However, the complex psychological factors involved along with the neurological causes make covert stuttering difficult to treat. Traditional speech therapy can become effective only when a person who stutters covertly, is willing to accept and embrace their stuttering.

Therefore, one of the first tasks for the therapist is to encourage the client to stutter overtly. Acceptance can come through rigorous exercises like –

  • Talking openly about stuttering and introducing oneself as someone who stutters
  • Mentioning one’s stuttering to their friends, colleagues and family in an acceptable way
  • Advertise their stuttering via voluntary stuttering
  • Desensitizing oneself towards the negative reactions of the listeners
  • Not substituting or avoiding the feared words, but saying them complete with blocks, repetitions or prolongations

An adult may need intensive cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to achieve the self-confidence necessary to accept and advertise their stuttering.

Once the person is able to embrace their stutter, there’s no looking back.

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