Stuttering and Autism – How are they linked?

Small boy, mid speech.

My son stutters. The way he speaks can vary massively – and does so from hour to hour, from sentence to sentence. Sometimes he will speak fluently and extensively, for several minutes in a row. Stuttering and Autism are inextricably linked for him.

Sometimes it will take him several minutes to get a single word out. Some days – the ones when he feels so much stress that he cannot function – he retreats into silence – because the words simply will not come.

“They get stuck on the sticky tape in my brain and they just won’t come out of my mouth mummy.”

Wikipedia says this of stuttering:

Stuttering, also known as stammering, is a speech disorder in which the flow of speech is disrupted by involuntary repetitions and prolongations of sounds, syllables, words or phrases as well as involuntary silent pauses or blocks in which the person who stutters is unable to produce sounds.

As with many other hidden or less obvious disabilities, stuttering is often misunderstood by the public. The beginning of this clip from Gogglebox, in which the viewers are watching Educating Yorkshire, perfectly illustrates how many people react to a stutter before they fully understand:

Before the speech difficulty has a name, before they know Musharaf and his story, before they truly understand his perseverance and courage, they show very little tolerance or patience. Of course, once it is clear that Musharaf has a clearly diagnosed speech problem, they show remorse and compassion. Had they been speaking to Musharaf, or someone like him, in real life, the damage to their confidence and wellbeing may have already been done. Frustration and a lack of patience do not have to voiced in order to be obvious. Stuttering and autism are not linked in Musharaf’s case, but his example still shows general attitudes to speech difficulties.

My son is 6 years old. At the moment, his age means that many people are more tolerant of his speech difficulties. Most children his age have trouble with fluency at some stage or another. However, even now, there are those that lose patience with him.

We were discharged from speech therapy before he started school and so we have muddled through with our own research and methods for helping him, which you can find below.

Stuttering in Children – Dos and Don’ts

Do not show frustration. Do not appear bored or surprised about how long it is taking for the child to finish.

Do make sure your face is animated and interested, that your facial expressions are positive and encouraging and show that you are listening.

Do not try to finish a word or sentence for them.

Instead, be as engaged with their ideas as you can be. Be ready to engage as soon as they have finished and do not draw attention to any delay or difficulty.

Do give the child plenty of time to speak and to process your speech and questions. Never rush them.

Do not assume a lack of understanding or that the child does not know what they want to say.

Do not overwhelm them with information or repeat what you are saying frequently. Many people feel uncomfortable with silence and the urge is to fill it with something – either by finishing the sentence or by repeating the question. Do learn to be comfortable with silence while you wait for them to finish.

Do make turn-taking for speech very clear and try to limit any interruptions when it is their turn to speak.

Stuttering and Autism

There are not many figures available for how many verbal autistics also stutter. However, the general opinion seems to be that it is more common than it is among the general population. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, most autistics, even those requiring less support, have some kind of speech or processing difficulty at some time.

I often feel like my son’s thoughts work much more quickly than he is able to translate into the physical mechanics of speaking. I am also sure that he has trouble processing his ideas and translating them into the exact words that he wants to use – this can result in delays in speaking.

However, anxiety is also a huge issue. When my son is anxious, when he feels out of control and it is not clear exactly what is happening, his speech quickly deteriorates. This is also true when he is extremely excited.

He has huge emotional reactions to things, both negative and positive, and they are also hard for him to fully process. When he is working hard to process his emotions and his ideas, and translate them into speech, that is when his stuttering is most profound.

I should add the caveat that I am not a speech and language professional – and in fact, we have had very little contact with anyone to support us in that area of Biggest’s development. These are simply my gut feelings and observations.

What I wish people knew

Ultimately, I wish that those who lose patience with my son would give him the benefit of the doubt. His stutter may disappear as he grows – or it may not. Either way, I do not want people to treat him differently because of it. His peers already sometimes lose interest and walk away when he is talking to them.

This is, of course, through no fault of their own. Small children have short attention spans and they do not know why he is taking so long to say something. But it is painful to watch when I know how much it takes for him to attempt social interaction with other children.

I hope that, as he grows, his peers learn to accept his idiosyncratic way of speaking, of which his stutter is only one facet. This can only happen if parents are also aware and teach their children to act with patience and kindness when talking to someone who struggles with some aspect of language or speech.

Stuttering and autism make my son unique. He son has so much to say – he is witty, amusing and full of incredible ideas and infectious enthusiasm. You will not regret giving him the time he needs to voice his thoughts, I promise.

Stuttering and Autism Pin

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8 thoughts on “Stuttering and Autism – How are they linked?

  1. My younger NT daughter had some stammering when she was little. Like you, I thought her ideas were rushing to fast to put into words. I used to to tell her to stop a moment, think about what she wanted to say, then try again. It helped her.
    Luck to you and your beautiful boy🍀💌

  2. I had a stammer when i was younger words wouldnt come out the letter B was my main battle along with a few more. It didnt really go away as i got older but it did calm down. The horrid part was being afraid of certain letters feeling all anxious and stupid talking to people. School was a nightmare with teachers asking for my name everyday knowing full well i stuttered and them saying. “Hurry up we haven’t got all day” i was really good at french and knew what to say but failed badly because of my stuttering. Now im in my 50’s i dont seem to. suffer anymore.

  3. I love your blog. Each week something you write seems to corrolate to knrvof my children. My eldest has apraxia Of speech and stuttering. It took until she was 6 yrs old before others understood her. Lahr is now 12 and last year have a 3 minute speech in front of the school. She still stutters but no lt ss severe. Like you said more with stress or anxiety but also excitement when she isn’t slowed down. She doesn’t stutter when singing. She has had good and not so good reactiond, but she does a have friends who really care and help encourage her. When it’s been a long hard day she will still reduce herself into ball and hides. It’s too hard and too complicated at times

  4. My little man stutters. He doesn’t do it all the time, usually when he’s trying to construct his own sentence (he tends to have lots of learnt phrases and repeated conversations). He also does it when he’s over stimulated or he’s distracted. He’ll relay the first word or couple of words over and over until the sentence comes out. Lately he has started to say “forget it” and walks off. That makes me sad so I try and help him.

  5. This is a brilliant post Danielle. I have seen the video before but still had me in tears again this time. Your do’s and don’t are really helpful for all sorts of language and speech issues. The damage that a lack of patience does is enormous and its such an unnecessary thing. Since having children with language delay’s myself I am far more patient. #SpectrumSunday

  6. I remember watching this (not Gogglebox, but the actual school documentary that it shows in this clip) a few years ago. I loved it then and love it now, and think it highlights how more research should go into how music affects our brain. It’s wonderful. Thank you for the reminder, as well as for this great post about your son’s experience with stuttering xx

  7. I am actually crying reading this. My 6 year old daughter has a severe stammer and autism also. Your son is obviously a remarkable boy and I really wish you and him all the best for the future. You have touched my heart today. Thank you.

  8. It is a parent’s job to worry about their child… and eventually teach their child how to be their own advocate. We do it by being with the child at parent / teacher interviews, and staying calm.. Ask the teacher questions about our child…. and then tell the teacher what you think… some teacher’s are not as wise as others. Find the teachers who understand and offer support.

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