Notes From A Stuttering 'Expert'

Notes From A Stuttering 'Expert'
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I come to you as an expert on stuttering. I’ve been doing it ― both severely and gently ― for more than 60 years.

Traditional clinic therapy. Psychiatric counseling. Divine intervention. Pain diversion. Edinburgh Masker. Delayed auditory feedback. Precision Fluency Shaping. Two-second syllables. Funny-looking device in my ear. I’ve tried them all.

Am I fluent? Not even close. Am I disappointed? Not in the least? Did I give up on fluency? No. I simply learned how to stutter to satisfy myself.

Do not misunderstand, especially parents of young children, and think I’m saying that stuttering cannot be overcome. My son, now a physician specializing in internal medicine, is a product of two years of speech therapy when he was 4-5. He overcame his problem completely. My daughter at 4 years of age had the worst repetitive stutter imaginable ― for two weeks. As I was frantically lining up speech therapists, the stutter totally and forever vanished. If you could only hear her give marketing presentations now.

I do feel strongly, however, about the word “cure.” That passive four-letter word should be outlawed in the world of stuttering. Let me give a rather crude example. A child is born with one leg shorter than the other. Do we ask that the child be “cured”? No, we only ask that the child be able to walk normally. If the child can be taught to walk without a limp, so much the better, but all we really want is for the young one to be able to move around easily and enjoy a comfortable life. Help me shout it to the rooftops: A stutter is overcome, not cured.

“Help me shout it to the rooftops: A stutter is overcome, not cured.”

A book called Stuttering Solved became popular in the mid-70s. I read it perhaps a half-dozen times back in the day. While some of the recommendations are probably clinically valid, I would like to say to the author that his title is lousy. If there were a magic pill out there, I guarantee I would have found it by now.

Although I’m removed by five decades from the heartbreak that is associated with an adolescent stutter, the scars run deep. In 2013 Random House/Delacorte published my novel for young readers called Paperboy. The book went on to win a Newbery Honor in 2014. It deals with an 11-year-old boy who must take over his best friend’s newspaper route for a month in the summer of 1959. The boy’s debilitating stuttering gives rise to a memorable month. During the five years I spent writing the novel and especially when I delved deep into my psyche, I became aware, as did others, that I was less fluent in my daily speech. Mind you, this is 50 years after the fact. As the boy says in the book, the good thing about a scar is that it doesn’t hurt if you stick a pin in it.

So, now as your self-proclaimed expert, I want to address specific groups among you. I make no apologies for my passion.

To the parents of a child who stutters:

Never let anyone convince you that your child “will grow out of it.” Stop what you are doing right now, including reading this, and find a qualified speech therapist. How many people do you know who start learning to play the piano at 25? The mechanics of speech are far more complicated than a piano. There’s no time to lose.

To the child who stutters:

Just like you don’t understand most grownups, you will not understand why your speech therapist is having you do certain things. It doesn’t matter. Just do them. You will be glad you did. Work hard. It will pay off.

To the teenager who stutters:

Everything gets better. I guarantee it. You are going through your toughest time now. Be aware that speech avoidance is your worst enemy. It turns you into somebody you are not.

Don’t be like the boy who got out of his chair to close or open a window every time it was his turn to read or recite in class. Don’t be like the boy who didn’t tell his parents for almost three months that a crown had come off a tooth so he could pop it out at the right time and escape having to talk. Don’t be like the boy who tried to convince his parents to change the home phone number because it might be easier to say a new one. Don’t be like the boy who chose his friends by how well he might be able to say their names. Don’t be like the boy who would hold a thumbtack in his hand and press it into his palm anytime he would have to recite in class.

Who was that boy? Take a guess.

To the young adult who stutters:

Be proactive. As a student at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in the late 1960s, I passed by the UT Hearing and Speech Center every day on my way to class. I never went in because I wanted to hide instead of confront my speech. In that building was Dr. Harold Luper, noted speech pathologist and educator. Twenty years later I met Dr. Luper and he became one of my dearest friends. I would have benefited greatly by walking in the doors of that building that is now named for the late Dr. Luper.

Don’t let stuttering dictate life choices or your self-worth. I concentrated on sports in high school and early in college instead of my studies. I had reasoned that a professional baseball player didn’t have to talk fluently to make a living, but I found out you did have to be able to hit a 95-mph fastball. I studied newspaper journalism because I thought a reporter didn’t have to talk. I quickly found out a reporter talks much more than he writes. I was fortunate to work with people who heard more than my non-fluent speech and saw more than my quivering lips and long blocks. Don’t always count on that, but never be talked out of your self-worth.

To the adult who stutters:

Replace any feelings of inadequacy with your passion. I met a gentleman a few years ago with a severe stutter who worked in the back of a garden nursery. I soon discovered he knew more about plants, shrubs and trees than anybody in the place. Every time I checked out at the register I suggested that he be moved up front to help customers. His passion and knowledge of plants made far more of an impression on me than his repetitions and prolongations. Unless you are a radio-TV news anchor, verbal communication makes up less than 1 percent of your life. There’s another 99 percent to be lived with relish.

Formal settings in the workplace can be a challenge for us, but don’t let those times beat you down. Stay on top. Have you ever considered saying something like: “Before I start this presentation I want to make you aware that sometimes I have a stutter that shows up. If you don’t pay any attention to it, then I won’t either and it might go away.” I know that may sound far-fetched, but you have no idea how emotionally cleansing something like that can be. Humor is sometimes the best antidote for a stutter.

To the speech clinician:

Treat your clients holistically and see them as individuals. Their lives do not end when they leave your office. You have learned valuable skills in your undergraduate and graduate schools, but you are not tinkering with a robot or a science project.

I always will maintain that transfer is more important than in-clinic therapy. At age 39 I walked out of a three-week fluency-shaping program where I had felt fluency for the first time in my life. My world came crashing down 30-minutes later at a convenience store. We have a saying here in the hills of Tennessee: It don’t matter the size of a bucket if you can’t take it with you.

To the pathologist/researcher:

I know things that I can’t prove:

• Stuttering does have a genetic component.

• There’s a non-causative link between adolescent stuttering and attention deficit disorder. Children with ADD are less likely to overcome their stutter.

• Proper muscle mechanics is the ultimate answer to overcoming a stutter. Proper muscle mechanics also will allow you to throw a key in a lock from five feet away. Try that sometime.

• Stuttering is what you do when you try not to stutter. This declarative sentence is simple on the surface but holds complexities that are unimaginable. Within that statement may lay the ultimate answer to the problem of stuttering.

I congratulate the great strides you have made in stuttering therapy. In my 60 years it has come a long way. We’re not there yet, however, so work harder.

To the friends, families and spouses of those who stutter:

You know not to finish a sentence for a person who stutters or tell them “just slow down,” but I have some other rules you may not have heard.

Don’t let a stutter be the elephant in the room. Encourage examination of feelings If a person wants to talk to you about speech difficulties, be a good listener but don’t show pity.

A person who stutters can be moody, irritable and a general pain, but it might not have anything to do with their speech. We are allowed to be normal just like you.

Don’t let your loved-one fall into the trap of using a speech difficulty as a crutch, an excuse for lowered goals or sub-standard performances.

As a college sophomore I did everything in my power, including lying and intimidation, to try to get out of learning and reciting in class the 42 lines of the prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. If I’m on my way to a podium now, watch closely and you will see me warming up - “Whan that Aprille . . .”

That completes my expert take on stuttering.

Several years ago I gave the keynote address to about 2,000 high school students and parents at an academic achievers banquet in Knoxville, Tenn. Much of my talk dealt with how I coped with my speech difficulties. I received dozens of letters afterwards from attendees. I remember one in particular in which a young lady wrote: “It must be interesting to be you.”

Indeed it is.

It’s said that stutters are like snowflakes because no two are alike. I can share thousands of stuttering stories, both horrific and hilarious. If you are a person who stutters, you have your stories too. We are unique. I challenge you to bask in that uniqueness. Flaunt it.

“It’s said that stutters are like snowflakes because no two are alike. I can share thousands of stuttering stories, both horrific and hilarious. If you are a person who stutters, you have your stories too. We are unique. I challenge you to bask in that uniqueness. Flaunt it.”

If I now seem cavalier about my stutter, good. I’ve worked hard to be able to feel that way.

In the end, your only choice is to play the hand you are dealt.

Do I wish I had not been saddled with a speech impediment? Certainly. I’m no masochist. At the same time, part of me wonders if I would have had a long and exciting career in newspapers? Would I have written the book I’m proud of?

I wear my scars proudly. Go ahead. Stick a pin in me.

This essay originally appeared in The Stuttering Homepage, hosted by Minnesota State University, Mankato.

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