Science of Stuttering

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Once a month, a half dozen people gather ina speech therapists’ conference room to talk about what it’s like to not be able to talk like everyone else. They’re able to joke with each other, but living in a world with stuttering is no laughing matter.

“Sometimes I’m probably not the most fun person to be around, because I just don’t want to talk.”

Nicole Kemper regularly attends the Birmingham support group.

“You know, I can just sit there for hours, and if nobody asks me a question, I’m happy.”

I know exactly how she feels. I stuttered from the time I could speak. I hated talking to people. When I was in high school, I worked at a fast food restaurant. My boss would ask me a question, and I’d stutter. My boss would ask me a question, and I’d stuttered. He’d look at me like, “What have I hired?”

When I was 17, I finally said, enough! My parents didn’t have the money for a speech therapist. So, I was on my own. I purposely put myself in situations where I have to speak in public, such as running for class president. If I began to stutter, I concentrated on that place in my head where I could get all of the words out. After several years, my stuttering completely disappeared.

Not everyone who stutters is so lucky. Most who don’t grow out of stuttering by the time they’re six or seven, will stutter their entire life. For years there was an ongoing debate about what causes a child to stutter. Many blamed their environment. Speech Therapist Deborah Boswell leads the Birmingham self help group.

“We do know it’s not because of something the child observed that was horrendous in their lifetime. We do know it’s not because of the way they’re been treated. That it’s not the way they’re nurtured.”

Research conducted by Peter Remig, professor of speech and language pathology at the University of Colorado, and colleagues suggests the brains of those who stutter differ from the brains of fluent speakers.

“What this research has revealed that people who stutter as compared to people who do not, are using their brain quite differently during speech, than people who don’t stutter. So, we’re seeing differences in the right hemisphere, and we’re seeing differences in how the left hemisphere is operating during speech. We know those differences are there.”

The research has evolved, and so has the way society deals with people who stutter. In the past, students who stuttered where placed in segregated classes that often left a lasting emotional scar. Self-help group member Michael Merns remembers attending junior high in the mid seventies.

“The school therapist put me in a group setting. So there was me who stuttered, But the other people in the group had some more severe difficulties such as cerebral palsy, mentally challenged, and I felt I really didn’t belong in that environment. So that kind of made things worse for me emotionally, because I knew I didn’t belong there.”

Today, speech therapists like Deborah Boswell work intensively with people who stutter.

“Number one, teaching the individual, the client, to modify the moment of stuttering. To learn how to get out of that stuttering moment. Whether it’s with hesitation, prolongations, starting over, saying the word again. Also fluency shaping. Teaching them some techniques, such as slow and easy speech, teaching them to breathe properly, teaching them ways to manipulate their environment so that they’re more fluent.”

One of the more innovative therapy models is a Fluency Camp. Brian runs the event. He says the camp teaches children that fighting stuttering only makes it worse. The more they accept it, the better chance they have of overcoming it.

“When a person is trying to fight their stuttering or struggle against it, or their trying to cover it up, and hide it, because they are afraid, that’s very much like pulling your fingers out of one of those finger puzzles that we used when we were children.”

In many ways, convincing someone who stutters to accept it is the most difficult part of therapy, even for adults. They live their life around stuttering, not in spite of it. Many don’t attend college so they won’t have to talk in class. Others are afraid to meet people, so they have no social life. Some either accept jobs where speaking is minimal or they take any job they’re offered, because they can ‘t get past the interview process for the jobs they’re qualified for. It’s the monkey on their back, day and night, says Nicole Kemper.

“In the dreams, I stutter in them. And, I get stressed out, like it’s not something you can escape, ever.”

Group member Jonathan Harris agrees. He’s had trouble finding a job that would give him the self-satisfaction and acceptance he craves.

“I know that I’m different. I didn’t ask to be this way. And, I just wish everyone would be patient with people who aren’t like everyone else. Because we’re not stupid. Everyone has a story. And, if you just listen and give them a shot, I think they’ll surprise you.”

I know exactly how he feels.