Covert Stuttering

What is covert stuttering?

Proposed New Definition

Covert stuttering:  word omittance, substitution and circumlocution as a strategy used by the speaker to hide an overt stutter.

Covert stutterer: a person who uses the strategy of covert stuttering.

New Situation (proposed)

The term “covert stutterer” should therefore be restricted to the person who demonstrates the speech activity of covert stuttering (ie. word omittance, substitution and circumlocution). Previously it has been used to refer to people who are extremely embarrassed by their stuttering and suffer consequent psychosocial affects. Situation avoidance, speech avoidance and word avoidance are all linked to embarrassment and anxiety about the implications of overt stuttering. If the associated pyschopathology is sufficient to warrant a diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder, then the application of the term Stuttered Speech Syndrome is appropriate. In this way it is possible to differentially describe people who stutter. Someone with stuttering associated social anxiety disorder (Stuttered Speech Syndrome) may or may not be someone who uses covert stuttering behaviour.

Previous Siuation

Covert is a term with many meanings in stuttering leading to obvious confusion. In the literature it is used to refer to:

  1. speech deliberately hidden by the speaker (word omittance and substitution);
  2. situation avoidance by the speaker;
  3. stuttering’s non speech activity (behaviour, attitudes and emotions);
  4. what is unknown or not widely appreciated about stuttering.

The multiple meanings create confusion and cause problems with accurate communication. One solution is to only regard covert stuttering as the speech deliberately hidden by the speaker (otherwise described as the speech event of escape behaviour after sentence formulation). The speaker omits, substitutes or circumlocutes as a way to hide what he recognizes would otherwise be an overt stutter. This is distinct from situation avoidance behaviour. It is necessary to make this distinction if we are to restrict our definition and measurement of stuttering to dysfluent speech events as experienced by the speaker. (Note: ‘Escape’ and ‘avoidance’ are established psychological terms.)

Covert features of stuttering” as a phrase referring to stuttering’s non-speech activity, should be avoided in the interests of clarity. The strict definition of the word covert is secretive or deliberately hidden as opposed to the simple meaning of hidden. Describing emotional/attitudinal responses as covert introduces potential inaccuracy. They may be covert if they are secretive or deliberately hidden, but they cannot be regarded as covert simply because they are not on view or their existence is not often appreciated.

This has clinical implications. Irrespective of presence of psychopathology a person with minor overt dysfluency may be experiencing frequent covert dysfluency. With this new terminology attention can be drawn to the fact that children who stutter should not necessarily be denied therapy simply because they have minor overt dysfluency. They may well have frequent covert dysfluency.

Other Definitions: Stuttered Speech Syndrome, Stuttering