What are the main causes of stuttering, and how do you treat it?
It is increasingly clear that in most cases stuttering is a physiological problem,
with genetic components that are just beginning to be understood. We treat it behaviorally
by teaching individuals other ways of speaking so they don’t struggle as much.
I understand you were a stutterer early in life. Tell us about that.
I stuttered as a child ever since I can remember. No one ever heard of a speech pathologist
in those days. When I was in preschool, my parents took me to a specialist in Denver,
Colo., and the advice they got was to just ignore the stuttering and it would go
away. The thinking back then was that stuttering was basically the result of parents
having too high of speech standards thus making the child upset if they made an
issue of it. Of course, it turns out that is not true. But, nevertheless they ignored
my stuttering — and it didn’t go away.
When I enrolled at Colorado State University, I decided to major in speech pathology
and was lucky enough to meet a professor and my mentor, Bill Leith. He basically
directed my studies and my therapy. I am one of the lucky ones. After two years
of therapy, I became very fluent and have stayed that way through the rest of my
How many clients do you think you have helped over the years?
I wish I had a number — certainly hundreds, possibly thousands — if you think of
it in terms of my research and studies, the consulting I’ve done, my work with
students who have gone on to touch so many lives.
My research around public opinions of people with stuttering, for example, has
spawned nearly 250 other studies. The [survey] instrument I developed has been
used in 42 countries and has been translated into 26 languages. I have worked closely
with Mary Weidner, a doctoral student who is working on a series of studies dealing
with measuring and attempting to improve the attitudes of preschoolers. If you
can believe it, stereotypes are worse in preschool than in kindergarten children.
Kids who stutter are seen by normally speaking kids as fearful and shy — and that’s
just not true. Hopefully, her work will help reduce the teasing and bullying in
our schools as well as job discrimination in the workplace.
What motivated you to want to help others through your long career in higher education?
I didn’t know it back then, but I guess I always wanted to be a scientist more than
anything else. I was going to solve the problem of stuttering once and for all.
Of course that’s not going to happen. But in the process, I’ve directed a lot of
speech therapy, running individual and group therapy for adults and supervising
hundreds of students who have gone on to help others. I ended up helping lots of
people who stutter by virtue of being in the world of higher education and specializing
in fluency disorders.
Are there any cases that stand out to you as truly remarkable success stories?
Well, there are many but one of them is a person – his name is Tim Flynn – who started
out as a student and client in our group therapy program and eventually switched
his major to communication sciences and disorders. When he came into the program
he was a severe stutterer, but he stayed with the therapy and went on to get his
master’s degree in this field. Now he’s a speech-language pathologist in Virginia.
Tim is not just a survivor, he is a prevailer. He had some really hard knocks
in his life and has used his stuttering to his advantage and to the advantage
of his clients. He’s just a wonderful clinician. He has a way of connecting with
people … interacting with an audience. Today, he treats all speech disorders, but
particularly those who stutter.
He is also passionate about changing the public’s mindset about stutterers. This
is an area I’ve studied for some 17 years and actually developed a widely recognized
public opinion study on attitudes toward stuttering.
As a student here, Tim would give talks to local high school health classes and,
as part of his thesis, he studied how high school students viewed stuttering. He
really was the first person to seriously contribute to the science of changing
public attitudes about stuttering.
One of reasons I see him as a success story is because he’s more than someone who
overcame stuttering. You see, it’s not so much success around how fluent you become
or how little you stutter, but what you do in spite of your stuttering – not letting
stuttering determine your present or your future.
I’ve seen those who stutter not do so when singing or performing? How does that
It’s true. Very few people stutter when they sing; most are completely fluent. There
are lots of explanations for that, basically involving how the brain functions
in different ways in different people. For example, singing is typically memorized,
and one doesn’t have to think about the pronunciation. Also, vowels are prolonged
when you sing and singing is also non-communicative in the typical sense.
How many students have you taught/mentored during your career?
I’d say anywhere from five to eight every semester for nearly 40 years, so what’s
that – let’s just say in the hundreds.
Who were your biggest influences?
As I mentioned earlier, my mentor and clinician at Colorado State Bill Leith is one.
But I would also say dozens of my colleagues – particularly the colleagues and
administrators here who have permitted me to stay on this path of specializing
in fluency disorders.
And, of course, my parents who instilled in me – maybe too much – an extreme hard
Also my wrestling coach in high school who taught me never to give up. You know,
if you’re going to succeed in academia, you have to work extremely hard and rise
above obstacles and rejection.
What do you want people to remember about you as you prepare to enter retirement?
The contributions I have made in my field. That I’ve made a difference. And, that
I was a good man.
What advice do you have for young professionals in your field?
It is related to the motto I put into my yearbook at Steamboat Springs High School:
Minds are like parachutes. They only function well when they are open.
Basically, my advice is to keep an open mind. Be open to whatever is coming your
way. Realize that we are all students. It’s all about the search.
What’s next for Dr. St. Louis?
I hope it’s not a nursing home right away (laughs). I want to pursue some other interests.
We have a cabin in the mountains of Colorado that we will visit more often. I would
like to try some different kinds of writing – maybe a memoir. Beyond that, travel.
I love international work, so I will always keep traveling.