The torment of being a ‘clutterer’: When you speak too fast to be understood and jumble your words

‘Will you please stop waffling!’ 

I was dimly aware someone – my teacher, it turns out – had been saying my name, louder and louder for a while. 

And finally she’d lost it. ‘Get to the point, or sit down and be quiet.’

It was an English lesson and I’d been asked a question about the play we were reading, J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls.

I was giving the best answer ever. I’d already touched on the relative merits of capitalism and socialism – one of the underlying themes – before moving on to subtle details of the plot I thought were important for people to know.

I thought everyone would be very impressed. 

So when the teacher basically told me to shut up, I felt… deflated, to say the least. 

But it was far from the first time that had happened.

Throughout secondary school (I’m 17 now, and studying for A-levels at college), I often found people would interrupt when I spoke. 

‘Slooooooow dooooowwwn,’ they’d say, loudly, as if talking to someone with hearing problems standing far away, while holding up their hands. 

‘Take a breath,’ or ‘STOP, STOP, GOT IT!’ were all common reactions.

Of course, at the time I didn’t understand why. I couldn’t tell I was ‘going off on one’, as some teachers described it.

And worse, once I was interrupted I found I couldn’t remember what I’d been saying, which made it all even more confusing.

I wasn’t terribly behaved – I did really well, grades-wise, but I did seem to get labelled as argumentative, obstinate and stroppy.

QAIS HUSSAIN (pictured): Some people with cluttering fill their speech with lots of ‘ums’, ‘uhhs’ and ‘likes’, but I don’t – I’m never short of things to say but I’ll often repeat phrases and words over and over again

What I didn’t know then, but do now, is that all of these things are symptoms of a little-known speech disorder called cluttering, which I live with.

You’ve probably heard of stammering – when people know the words they want to say but can’t quite get them out. 

Well, cluttering is sort of the opposite. The words come out very quickly, in a jerky and jumbled way. 

We speak in rapid bursts, so syllables can become squished together. ‘Elephant’ becomes ‘elphant’. ‘Orange’ becomes ‘ornge’.

Some people with cluttering fill their speech with lots of ‘ums’, ‘uhhs’ and ‘likes’, but I don’t – I’m never short of things to say but I’ll often repeat phrases and words over and over again.

We have a tendency to interrupt or talk over others, and find it hard to slow down even when asked to. 

I gesticulate, and become more and more animated, which I feel is a sign of enthusiasm but others tell me they find aggressive. I was endlessly told I wasn’t listening.

Exact numbers aren’t known, but cluttering is thought to affect a significant proportion of the one in ten children with speech and language difficulties.

And studies show that three-quarters of people who clutter continue to do so in adulthood, compared with just a quarter of people who stammer.

I stammered as a child. When I was about six, my parents took me to a speech and language therapist. 

‘Talk at the speed of a snail,’ was the advice I was given. ‘It’ll help you get the words out.’

And it worked. My stammer had disappeared by the time I was eight. But, as I would discover, my problems were only just beginning. 

By the time I was in secondary school I’d been labelled a chatterbox. Aside from getting in trouble with some teachers, I also felt like a bit of an outsider.

When I was 15, thinking that the reason no one could ever understand what I was trying to say was a sign my stammer was coming back, I decided to go to see my GP – without telling my parents. She referred me back to the speech therapist who’d treated me when I was younger.

She listened to what I had to say and I was given a diagnosis on the spot: ‘Qais, you have cluttering.’ 

She explained what it meant, and everything began to fall into place.

As with stuttering, cluttering is thought to develop at around three or four years of age, but can appear later on in childhood, as it did with me. 

It’s not known why it happens, but boys are more likely to have the problem than girls.

Sometimes cluttering co-exists with other difficulties, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and other learning disabilities – but these are seen as bigger issues and so the speech condition tends to be missed. 

Or it may never be diagnosed, and the sufferer is simply labelled as ‘gobby’, ‘motormouth’ or similar. 

For me, having a name for my problem didn’t solve everything, but it has changed the way I deal with things.

People who clutter often describe feeling frustrated or embarrassed, and a sense of shame about the fact that, on a regular basis, people tell them they can’t understand what they’re going on about.

I can relate to this. Even since being diagnosed, I’ve never felt able to record and listen to myself speaking. 

I was recently interviewed about a different topic by the BBC and I’ve still not watched the clip back. I just can’t face it.

The way I look at it now is that I just communicate a bit differently from others.

The speech therapy has helped: the main advice, as with stammering, is to slow down. When I’m asked a question, I stop and think for five to ten seconds about what I’ve been asked and what the most appropriate answer is.

After I was diagnosed, I was advised to get in touch with Stamma, formerly the British Stammering Association, which also supports people with other fluency disorders, including cluttering and stuttering.

They contacted my school and explained my condition to the teachers. This helped make them aware of the condition and be a little more understanding.

No one seems to have heard of cluttering, despite the fact it’s well recognised in medical literature. And there will be people reading this who think: he’s just annoying and has given himself some label to excuse it. 

But hopefully the more people who know about cluttering, the more patient people will be – in a similar way to how most people understand that stammers aren’t the fault of the person affected.

And I am trying, but I still get words wrong, all the time.

The other day, while playing badminton, I ripped my sweater. I told my friends I wasn’t happy ‘forking out for another one’, but what came out was ‘fornicating another one’.

Of course, we laughed. It’s funny. But it is also embarrassing when you’re the one who is always making these gaffes. 

Needless to say, I’m dreading having to ever give a wedding speech. Likewise, a job interview. Hopefully, though, with a bit of planning and preparation, I’ll be OK.

For more information and advice, Stamma has a free helpline on 0808 802 0002.