My topic on May 27, 2013, as was the case last year, was one that I’m very familiar with, having spent a lifetime addressing it.
I began with a question: What is stuttering?
A student explained that it involves the repetition of words.
That’s a good place to start.
Less rehearsals as the years go by
In the past, I’ve spent months rehearsing presentations about the topic of stuttering. Because I know the key points of what I want to say quite well, having had years of practice in sharing them, for this talk I only prepared a one-page outline of points I wanted to share in my talk to the Grade 4 class.
I described how I began to stutter at the age of six. I explained how by my late teens and early twenties, I wasn’t just repeating sounds. Sometimes I could not get out any sounds at all. I spoke of the time when I phoned someone, but couldn’t say “Hello,” as the “H” sound was at times almost impossible for me to sound out in those days. After what might have been 30 seconds or so, realizing I could not get past “Hello,” I had hung up the phone.
I asked the students how that might have felt.
Relearning how to speak
I also described how I had received some help, in learning how to speak, in my early thirties in Toronto and had managed to get through teacher’s college and get work as a special education teacher, working with developmentally handicapped students in very small classes, in a situation where the fact I stuttered wasn’t really a matter of concern for anyone. I generally never spoke at staff meetings in those days.
Years later I began to teach mainstream classes, and began to speak at staff meetings as well. Teaching Grade 4 was among my favourite classes to teach. I used to speak with my students about the fact that I stutter. They found the topic of interest. I also shared with them the fact that if I heard of a situation in the school where a child was teasing a child who stuttered, then I would address the teasing at once, and with a strong level of motivation.
In my talk this year I also described how, in my early forties, I attended a three-week speech therapy clinic in Edmonton, where I relearned how to speak. I relearned how to coordinate breathing with voice production when speaking, how to initiate sounds, and all manner of other skills that are applied without further thought or reflection by non-stuttering speakers.
Stuttering often entails the avoidance of speaking
Stuttering is about more than word repetition. I spoke of the avoidance of speaking situations and what that means. Sometimes you can’t learn as many things when you don’t ask questions, when you don’t engage in a conversation in the classroom. During childhood and the adolescent years especially, we learn many things by sharing our thoughts with other people and getting feedback from them, in an ongoing process involving back-and-forth conversation. Conversation sometimes helps us to figure out who we are and where we’re going. If you don’t engage in those conversations during those years, it can take a while to learn some things.
During the years when I could barely speak, and at times was not capable of speech at all, I tried different jobs where a lot of speaking would not be required. But that was not going to be my route, as it turned out. Eventually I became a teacher. As a child, sitting in a classroom, dreading the next time I would be called upon to engage in oral reading, the idea that someday I would be standing in front of a classroom, teaching, would never have occurred to me. I just would not have been able to imagine it.
As a result of speech therapy, at different stages of my life I had the experience, a novel one for me at the time, of being able to say a complete sentence with ease, without struggling to get from the start of the sentence to the end. Many things in life have brought me joy and pleasure. The experience of being able to just speak more or less freely is among the things in life that I most appreciate, and that I am most thankful for. I take nothing for granted. The simplest feature of everyday life is a source of pleasure for me.
The cause of stuttering is unknown
Stuttering appears to have a neurological basis; the exact cause is unknown.
The students in Mme. Warburton’s Grade 4 class found my talk of interest and enjoyed our discussion. Some students spoke of being interviewed in the context of sports teams; they spoke of being nervous. One student spoke of a non-stuttering child, in fear of doing a media interview connected with his sports team, chewing his fingernails with the chewed off pieces flying into the air. It was like some cartoon image. I liked that image. It was an evocative description.
I spoke about being interviewed in connection with my volunteer work in years past on behalf of people who stutter. I spoke about preparing people for interviews. Sometimes I would pretend to be a reporter and would role play the interview, and then review with the interviewee what points would benefit from further refinement. I would speak about the value of practice, and of rehearsal.
Stuttering: A listener’s guide
A presentation that involved extensive writing, refining of the message, and rehearsal was a talk to a Kiwanis Club some years ago. A video of that talk is available online, at the link in the previous sentence.
The speaking notes of the talk are available here.
Among articles in which I’ve been interviewed about stuttering here are some of them:
At the conclusion of the talk, I read the children’s book Hooray for Aiden to the class. I finished it just before the bell rang for morning recess.
Children, I’ve found, can relate to the story of a person who has overcome challenges at an early stage and have found a way to deal with them. That is a source of interest and inspiration for them.
What worked for me does not work for all people who stutter
About twenty percent of people who stutter are not able to attain the control over stuttering that I’ve been able to achieve. It’s not because they haven’t tried as hard as I have, but because of how a person’s brain is wired for speech production. Those of us who stutter who can’t gain long-term benefit from a form of therapy that is akin to learning fluency as a second language can benefit from speech therapy that enables a person to modify their stuttering, so that she or he experiences less interference with effective communication.
You can call these things speech therapy or treatment, if you like to apply a medical model to such things. I like to speak of it in terms of relearning a skill, as I like to apply an educational model to these things. One has a choice in how such matters are conceptualized.
Getting help early is key.
A treatment program for preschoolers called the Lidcombe Program is highly effective in addressing stuttering in very young children, as indicated by research published in peer-reviewed professional journals. For your interest, I’ve outlined, in an online article, what I’ve learned about the options that may be available for those of us who stutter.