Stuttering Self-Disclosure: An Empowering Opportunity

As speech-language pathologists, we work with clients who present with numerous communication disorders and differences. Some of these—such as stuttering and autism—are often misunderstood and stigmatized. This can lead to unhelpful and even harmful behaviors from teachers, classmates, and others in our client’s environment. Over time, this could be detrimental to academic and social success. How can we help our clients educate others and advocate for themselves?

What Is Self-Disclosure?

Self-disclosure is the sharing of personal thoughts and feelings with another person.4 Self-disclosure has been used in speech-language pathology as a therapeutic technique, most commonly with stuttering. Self-disclosure can mean:

  • Informing others of how you identify such as: “Hey, I’m Courtney and I stutter” or “I just want to let you know that I am a person who stutters.”
  • Clarifying what is happening by saying something like: “By the way, I stutter. So if you hear disfluencies or pauses in my speech, that’s what’s going on.”
  • Educating others on what they can do to help with an explanation like: “I stutter, so please give me some time to get the word out.”

Self-disclosure has also been used in autism, but research is limited. Like stuttering, autism can be a hidden disability and autistic characteristics might be misinterpreted. Self-disclosing can help educate others on aspects of autism that might be less well known. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that while having an autism diagnosis might be a source of pride for some, it might come with a fear of rejection for others.

What Are the Benefits of Self-Disclosure?

Self-disclosing can be beneficial for both the stutterer and the listener. However, how someone discloses matters just as much as the disclosure itself.

Self-disclosing in an informative manner, as opposed to a more apologetic manner, has been shown to lead to more positive listener reactions.3 Perceptions also tend to be more positive when the stutterer discloses their stuttering themselves.7 On the speaker’s end, self-disclosure is associated with a better quality of life and well-being.1,5

Anecdotally, I’ve seen the life-changing benefits of self-disclosure. Clients say things such as, “Now that it’s out there I don’t have to worry about what they might think is going on,” and “I feel best when I’m open about it.” There’s often a connection that happens when stutterers share their identity with others. Clients have told me over and over that when they open up about something vulnerable, other people share things about themselves as well.

Self-disclosing autism can also be beneficial. When autistic individuals disclose their diagnosis, listeners tend to have fewer negative perceptions of autistic behaviors and more positive first impressions.2,6 Self-disclosure of autism can also be valuable in the academic and professional settings to help students receive support and accommodations.

What Are the Potential Risks?

Self-disclosure requires a certain level of vulnerability, and there are risks to being vulnerable. It’s always a possibility that self-disclosure could result in social and professional rejection.

Some stutterers might be resistant to disclosing during a job interview for fear of not being hired. Others might view stuttering as a hindrance to professional advancement. Clients whose stuttering is more overt may be resistant to self-disclosure, wondering why they would disclose something obvious. Hesitation about disclosing stuttering could also result from fear of being bullied by peers or classmates.

What Are Other Ways to Self-Disclose?

In addition to self-disclosing directly, there are other, more creative ways for clients to share their identity with others. Some people like to weave it into natural conversation, such as sharing that they are going to a stuttering conference when asked about their summer plans or stating that they have speech therapy when someone asks why they are leaving work early.

Others may use humor to self-disclose, such as making a joke about their stuttering or acknowledging lightheartedly when they had a long stuttering moment. Social media is also a popular way to disclose. People might make a Facebook post, YouTube video, or TikTok to educate others about their stutter.

When Should Your Clients Self-Disclose?

Some situations lend better to self-disclosure than others. For example, it might not make sense for clients to disclose to someone they only see one time, such as the barista at Starbucks. Some prefer only to disclose to people whom they might see long-term, such as colleagues, supervisors, or neighbors. Others save self-disclosure for more intimate relationships, such as significant others and close friends. There is no right or wrong situation in which to self-disclose, and what works for one person may not work for another person.

If you are working with pediatric or adolescent clients, you may find this comprehensive guidebook helpful, as it specifically describes how to introduce self-disclosure through therapy activities as a part of your treatment program.

It’s important to educate clients on self-disclosure before using it in practice. Have clients brainstorm what they think self-disclosure is, possible benefits and risks, and when and why they might use it. Self-disclosure, when used appropriately, can be a beneficial tool for a lot of our clients. But remember, this is a vulnerable activity for most people, so tread slowly and carefully, and remember to always model something yourself before asking your clients to do it.

If you’re interested in learning more about the use of self-disclosure, specifically as it pertains to pediatric clients who stutter, MedBridge instructor J. Scott Yaruss offers this three-part course designed to help minimize bullying with specific strategies to educate those in the child’s environment.

  1. Boyle, M. P., Milewski, K. M., & Beita-Ell, C. (2018). Disclosure of stuttering and quality of life in people who stutter. Journal of fluency disorders58, 1–10.
  2. Brosnan, M., & Mills, E. (2016). The effect of diagnostic labels on the affective responses of college students towards peers with 'Asperger's Syndrome' and 'Autism Spectrum Disorder'. Autism : the international journal of research and practice20(4), 388–394.
  3. Byrd, C. T., Croft, R., Gkalitsiou, Z., & Hampton, E. (2017). Clinical utility of self-disclosure for adults who stutter: Apologetic versus informative statements. Journal of fluency disorders54, 1–13.
  4. Jourard, S. M. (1971). Self-disclosure: An experimental analysis of the transparent self. New York, NY: Wiley.
  5. McGill, M., Siegel, J., Nguyen, D., & Rodriguez, S. (2018). Self-report of self-disclosure statements for stuttering. Journal of fluency disorders58, 22–34.
  6. Sasson, N. J., & Morrison, K. E. (2019). First impressions of adults with autism improve with diagnostic disclosure and increased autism knowledge of peers. Autism : the international journal of research and practice23(1), 50–59.
  7. Snyder, G., Williams, M. G., Adams, C., & Blanchet, P. (2020). The Effects of Different Sources of Stuttering Disclosure on the Perceptions of a Child Who Stutters. Language, speech, and hearing services in schools51(3), 745–760.