Mask Use Poses Challenges for Children and Adults Who Stutter

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ASHA Provides Tips to Improve Communication in Everyday and Emergency Settings

For the roughly 3 million Americans who stutter, mask use can make communicating with people in the community a major challenge. With use of face coverings remaining a public health necessity in the coming months and potentially longer, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) is offering tips to make communication more effective for children and adults who stutter.

Solid face coverings can contribute to misunderstandings because they hide a person’s mouth. Many people who stutter experience blocks—which are long, silent pauses—in their speech. Often, the only cue to a listener is seeing the speaker’s facial area when they are in a block. Listeners may not realize that a person is experiencing a block if they are wearing a mask. As a result, they may talk over the person, move on, or misinterpret what they believe is a non-response as disrespectful or worse.

This scenario can be especially problematic if someone who stutters is involved in an emergency scenario (e.g., medical crisis) where a miscommunication of this form can have serious consequences. Although it is important for everyone to be aware of this circumstance, it is especially so for teachers, medical staff, first responders, and law enforcement officers.

For people who stutter, ASHA suggests the following tips to help reduce any miscommunication that could arise:

  • Let people know that you stutter (called self-disclosure). You may choose to state this verbally at the beginning of a conversation or carry this printed card from the Stuttering Foundation with you. This will let people know to give you extra time if you need it, and it can help remove some pressure if you are anticipating speech difficulties.
  • Wear a clear mask. By doing so, others will be able to see if you are experiencing a block. These masks are available at a variety of online retailers.
  • Practice at home. You can de-sensitize yourself to challenging scenarios by rehearsing conversations with loved ones in a comfortable setting before venturing out with a mask.
  • Consult your speech-language pathologist (SLP). If you’re working with an SLP, see what they suggest for modifying your speech therapy techniques.
  • Turn to support networks. There are many online communities for people who stutter. Your peers may have suggestions or simply provide comfort.

Everyone can help people who stutter by doing the following:

  • Be patient. Give the person a chance to speak. Don’t try to finish their thought or speak for them.
  • Be kind. These are extremely stressful times for everyone. You may be hurried while out in public, but try to remain understanding to those who require extra effort to speak.
  • Ask for clarification. If you don’t understand what a person is saying, let them know. Don’t guess or ignore their request.
  • Be flexible. Ask a person if they need more time to speak. Be open to other ways of communicating, such as reading a written message. Consider if policies need updating (e.g., in a medical setting, allowing an extra person to accompany a patient if they will need help communicating key information).

For more information, visit http://www.asha.org/public.

About the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
ASHA is the national professional, scientific, and credentialing association for 211,000 members and affiliates who are audiologists; speech-language pathologists; speech, language, and hearing scientists; audiology and speech-language pathology support personnel; and students. Audiologists specialize in preventing and assessing hearing and balance disorders as well as providing audiologic treatment, including hearing aids. Speech-language pathologists identify, assess, and treat speech and language problems, including swallowing disorders. http://www.asha.org

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Francine Pierson
ASHA
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