|About the Author: Dr Pallavi Kelkar, Pune, India. Assistant Professor, School of Audiology and Speech Language Pathology, Bharati Vidyapeeth. I always describe myself as a speech therapist who tends to focus more on the “P” in PWS- the person more than the stuttering. Because of this, all my reading, research and clinical work has been along these lines for the past 10 years. As part of my doctoral dissertation, I constructed an Impact Scale for Assessment of Cluttering and Stuttering (ISACS), which is now in the process of translation and validation in different Indian languages. The distinguishing feature of this tool is that it has a parallel form for significant other persons of the PWS/ PWC, thus making them equal partners in the therapy process. Through the ISACS and through the online conference this year, I would like to encourage not only persons who stutter but also their near and dear ones to “Speak their mind”.|
(Names of people in this article have been changed in order to protect their identity)
“M-m-m-my speech does not sound like everyone else.”
All of us with “no speech problems” (if there ever was such a thing) must have heard at least one person speak this way. In the movies, perhaps– mostly comedians, of late even protagonists– and of course in real life. We attribute it to “psychology” or “speaking in a hurry” and rarely give it a second thought. But is it as easy for those who stutter to dismiss it from their lives?
Says Mr. Kirtane, father of 3 year old Rohan, “I saw him put a hand over his mouth when he stuttered, and it broke my heart.” Having a non-stuttering, extremely expressive older sibling just made matters worse for this bright little boy who was just beginning to notice something amiss with his speech.
Therapy with such little children involves working majorly with the people around the child, and very little with the child himself. Parents need to be trained not to draw the child’s attention to the stutter, and ensure that the child associates speaking with secure, relaxed and happy feelings. Targeting these and other goals tailored for him drastically improved Rohan’s speech. The beaming father met me just last week, saying, “He hardly gets stuck now, probably just once or twice in a week.” But what makes me happier as a therapist is that Rohan is not bothered by his speech anymore.
This is a major milestone achieved, because most children with stuttering are extremely sensitive, very aware of listeners’ reactions, easily affected by even slightly negative experiences.
Such was the case with Priyanka, an earnest, hardworking 9 year old studying in quite a competitive city school that was well known for churning out “all round achievers”. Her stutter was not severe—she probably got a block once or twice in a sentence. (Yes, there are cases much more severe than that!) The bigger issue here was her need to always form a good impression, and the fact that she felt speech was an integral part of that “good impression”. Another layer to the problem was that her mother had experienced stuttering as a child. So there were the added emotions like the mother feeling guilty (in an irrational way, for possibly having passed on her stuttering to the child) and scared for her daughter, reminiscing the tough times she herself faced as she grew up. Needless to say, Priyanka sensed this anxiety, and the stress made her stutter even more.
Speech therapy in this case could not be restricted just to speech, but involved actively resolving the speech related anxiety and self- consciousness in both – the parent and the child. Armed with her changed attitude towards speaking, Priyanka now actively participates in debates and elocution competitions in school, often outdoing the children who never had a speech problem. She does stutter occasionally when she’s excited or upset, but she no longer considers it an obstacle to forming a good impression.
One can’t help but notice the common thread that runs through Rohan and Priyanka – that they both, occasionally, still stutter. A few people with stuttering might even stop stuttering completely later in life, but many don’t. Acceptance of stuttering, therefore, is a key step in stuttering therapy. In the absence of acceptance, a vicious cycle of stuttering begins, where stuttering feeds stress and stress feeds stuttering. The cycle, if not broken with timely help in the right direction, could produce young adults with a severe stutter accompanied by extreme self-consciousness and low self-esteem.
Preeti, a brilliant young girl of twenty- something years walked into my clinic a few years back. She was extremely well read, loved to philosophize and had so many interesting things she could have loved to express. But her brilliance was masked by shame and hopelessness at the very thought of her speech problem. For the first few sessions, merely talking about stuttering made her well up. Delving deeper into her thoughts and emotions unearthed a lot of expectations – some from herself, many from others around her – and despair when those expectations were not met.
Since Preeti’s stutter was severe, she required about 8-9 months of active speech therapy training her in exercises and techniques to overcome the involuntary physical act of stuttering. In addition, therapy activities were also chalked out along the principles of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, an approach that taught her to take control of her own thoughts and emotions, thus greatly reducing her feelings of helplessness.
In Preeti’s words, “My speech therapy did not transform just my speech – it transformed me as a person. It made me realize that I am my own master, that no one else has the right or ability to mould me. I don’t need to conform to anyone else’s definitions of perfection anymore.” And so she didn’t. She found a partner who appreciated her as a person, irrespective of the mild stutter that she still has. Married now and working in a company that offers her job satisfaction, a non-discriminative environment and a huge pay packet, Preeti has finally found the key to her happiness.
And yet each of the individuals mentioned here would prefer to keep their identity a secret. They can vouch for the people they know and love, but they are not sure if society in general would be as unbiased towards them. Their past experiences have taught them otherwise.
It is high time we stop noticing a stutter with raised eyebrows, and start giving it about the same importance as we would give to any tendency – asthma, or acne, or a spectacle number, or perhaps being a little overweight. Let us not be impressed only by a Hrithik Roshan (Indian movie star), or a Bruce Willis, or some other famous personality who stuttered. Let us, instead, look with admiration at success stories woven by common people around us.
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