Tricks of The Trade 7/10/20130 Comments“Trick” is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a crafty procedure or practice meant to deceive or defraud.” So it makes sense why speech pathologists have used the word “tricks” (AKA secondary behaviors) to describe the behaviors a person who stutters (PWS) uses to avoid, hide or get out of a moment of stuttering. The clip above is an interview with the actor, Samuel L. Jackson, as he discusses one of his “tricks” as a child to hide his stuttering. Some common tricks I see amongst my clients are eye blinks, tensing up the face or mouth, pretending to think, yawning, and using a silly voice. It is very important not to confuse “tricks” with strategies (i.e. easy speech, cancellations, etc.) Strategies are voluntary and intentional changes made to one’s speech that work to assist a PWS in creating more forward-moving speech and reducing the frequency and severity of disfluencies. “Tricks” may initially disguise themselves as helpful strategies, but with time, PWS learn that the very behavior that initially helped them, may actually be causing more harm then good! Let’s walk you through how “tricks” begin and where they go wrong!
For the sake of example, let’s use the behavior of eye blinks.

1. The person blinks and at that very moment this novel behavior (often done at random or by coincidence) is followed by immediately getting out of a disfluency. This may simply be luck or possibly the power of distraction created by this new behavior. Whatever the reason behind it is, this is exciting!

2. The fact that this person was successful and got out of the moment of disfluency after blinking their eyes will now act to reinforce this behavior and strengthen its association with escaping stuttering. (If the eye blink is not followed by getting out of the moment of stuttering it would not be reinforcing and would most likely not occur again and thus not become that person’s “trick.”)

3. The next time the person stutters instead of just exhibiting a part-word repetition, the disfluency willl now be paired with an eye blink. The more times this “trick” works the stronger this new response becomes!

4. Now here comes the part that differentiates between a “trick” and a helpful speech strategy! After happening a couple of times successfully, the behavior begins to happen automatically and becomes a habit. The novel behavior of eye blinking is no longer as novel and no longer distracting. What happens? It stops working! So now we have a person who is not only using part-word repetitions and struggling to get onto the sound, but now eye blinking has becoming an additional, involuntary behavior in their stuttering pattern! Helpful speech strategies, on the other hand, aren’t conditioned responses, rather they are voluntary and purposeful changes one makes to their speech that directly addresses the area of concern (depending on your philosophy of stuttering, the strategy may address breathing, tension in the vocal tract, rate, etc.)

Now that I walked you through the process of how “tricks” get started, it’s important to understand this all happens fast and often subconsciously! As children/teens get older and have more of an awareness of stuttering, “tricks” become more common whether they intentionally experimented with these behaviors or not! So what do we do once we identify these pesky behaviors?

1. MONITOR MONITOR MONITOR! By taking time in your day to monitor these behaviors as you are doing them, you will slowly extinguish these conditioned responses.

2. Try to alter the habit! If your trick is to eye blink, try to challenge yourself to purposely keep your eyes open the entire time when you’re in a moment of disfluency! If you’re “trick” is to speak on inhalation, try to purposely speak on exaggerated exhalation during a stuttering moment.

This is a “tricky” topic (pun intended!). Please feel free to write in questions or share your experience with “tricks”!