Stuttering is a mystery. Throughout history, many people have stuttered and many people have attempted to explain what it is and fix it. Speech therapy is a young profession, arising in the early 20th century. Since then, speech therapists have studied stuttering and developed various methods to treat it. Many of the pioneers in stuttering were themselves, people who stuttered.
What works well for one individual, might not work for another. Today, there are a few schools of thought in stuttering treatment: fluency shaping, stuttering modification, integrated treatment and individualized treatment. Fluency shaping focuses solely on the behaviors of stuttering and uses conditioning to improve speech. Stuttering modification focuses on the behaviors of stuttering and the psychological aspects associated with it. There is integrated treatment that uses fluency shaping and stuttering modification, and treatment individualized to each client’s strengths and needs. Professionals in the field of stuttering continue to disagree about which approach to treatment is better for clients depending on their age, severity, level of awareness and other factors.
Maybe you are asking yourself, how this relates to people who stutter helping each other. Well, I am a person who stutters (PWS) and a speech therapist. I became a speech therapist to help people who stutter. Many children who stutter receive speech therapy in school. The majority of speech therapists in schools do not stutter nor have ever stuttered. Stuttering is not a prerequisite for a speech therapist to treat a PWS; but I am biased and believe people who stutter may be some of the best speech therapists to help a PWS. Let me tell you part of the story that has led me to where I am.
I suddenly began stuttering in the third grade. Prior to this, I never had any difficulties with my speech. I began speech therapy in a public school. For three years, I went to speech therapy to work on things like “turtle talk” (slow speech) and was told to think about what I wanted to say before I said it; practicing predominantly fluency shaping techniques. My speech may have slightly improved in the therapy room, but I could not answer questions aloud in class, nor talk to my friends or my family. I became frustrated and quit going to speech therapy. Later in middle and high school, I went to speech therapy off and on. When my speech was horrible, I went to speech therapy, then later, I would stop going and deal with the stuttering on my own. This cycle repeated, until I was in the eleventh grade.
I especially remember one occasion. My US history class began with public speaking assignments. Students were required to speak aloud, taking turns according to seating arrangements. The first assignment was to say the Pledge of Allegiance and I practiced saying it aloud all night before. (It was not as if I had to memorize it; I had said it every day at school for years.) I remember sitting in class waiting for my turn, feeling like there were snakes in my stomach. When my time came, I stood and blocked, mouth open, then finally I uttered “I…I…I…p… p…p…ple…pledge…al..allegiance.. t…t..to… the …the..fl…fl..flag…of…of..the..the..uni…uni..ted…states of..of…of America”. By this time, most students in the class were staring at me and I was sweating. Someone laughed and I ran out of the room, and slammed the door. I cannot remember exactly where I went, I guess to the office, because that was where I expected they were going to send me anyway. I was used to being sent to the office after being in a fight, explaining to the principal that I only punched the person because he was making fun of me.
In high school, I played football and I remember waiting for practice all day so I could knock the shit out of someone on the field. I relieved my daily aggressions on the field and I excelled in football. I started on the varsity team as a sophomore; but regardless of my athletic ability, I could not talk when I wanted to. So, as a result of walking out of history class and not going back for the next few days, my teacher pulled test scores and arranged a meeting with my parents and me. My teacher did not understand how a person with good test scores was thinking about dropping out of high school. This was when I decided to try speech therapy again.
It turns out the speech therapist was nice, and became my friend. She let me talk about whatever I wanted to during therapy. This was the first time that a speech therapist was interested in how stuttering affected me. It seemed that she was trying to learn more about stuttering. She helped me figure out ways to address my stuttering so it would not affect my grades. She introduced me to two other guys in high school who stuttered. We had group therapy during which we talked about all types of things and practiced techniques to improve our speech and she had a man who stuttered come and talk to us. I was enjoying speech therapy for the first time ever. However, stuttering was persistent. I felt better about my stuttering, but was unable to speak freely. Then one day during our session, she said told me that she did not think there was anything else she could do for me and recommended that I should go to Western Carolina University (WCU) to meet her fluency professor. She told me that her professor was a PWS and he might be able to help me further.
My parents drove me to WCU to meet this professor. This meeting was monumental. I met a PWS who learned how to speak freely. I remember thinking, “there was a way to tame the beast”. Hope, inspiration and faith found their way into my vision. Stuttering appeared to me to be conquerable for the first time. The graduate student I was working with was pretty and sweet. The professor was truly empathic, compassionate, wise and willing to listen. I drove for an hour and went to WCU for weekly therapy during the summer. I remember practicing fluency shaping and stuttering modification techniques in therapy. I cannot recall the details of treatment precisely. The professor had just published the first edition of his text on stuttering intervention that year. He gave me a copy of the book when our therapy sessions came to an end. I believed that within this book, there was the answer to my riddle and the mystery of stuttering. I thought that, if he learned to speak freely, I could too, and this book would teach me how. It was not an overnight miracle, but it was magic! As I learned about stuttering, I became empowered to fight for my freedom to speak.
Over the next years, my speech drastically improved. I made it through six years of college, graduated with a degree in English, minoring in philosophy and religion, and fell in love with poetry. I would read poetry at open mics. I was in relationships with girls. I saw the birth of my son. I worked hard doing everything from waiting tables, running a printing press and plumbing, to surveying. When laid off from surveying, I reconsidered my life’s path. I chose to go to school to become a speech therapist. I called on the professor I had met many years earlier to discuss the idea. He encouraged me to pursue this path and he has supported me the entire way. A PWS, helping a PWS, that is what this professor has done for me: first as a human being, then as a clinician, then as a professor/mentor, and now as a colleague and friend.
We people who stutter are one in a tribe who owe it to each other to help one another. I am humbled to dedicate my life’s work to helping people who stutter. I have seen firsthand the accomplishments that are possible with dedication, determination and hard work. I have read numerous books written by professionals in the field of stuttering, who are themselves people who stutter and believe that for these people there is more to speech therapy than having a job to pay the bills. Stuttering can become a passion and reason for living.
I went on to graduate from WCU with an undergraduate degree in communication sciences and disorders and began their graduate school program the next year. My fluency class at WCU was the first class to use this professor’s 2nd edition of that stuttering intervention book, I had seen some ten years prior. I presented a poster on individualizing stuttering intervention with a school-age child at the American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) conference in 2012 with my clinician/professor/mentor/colleague/friend. Today my speech is mostly fluent, thankfully I still sometimes involuntary stutter. I was working with a middle school student this past year and told her, “I stutter” and she did not believe me. I faked stuttered during our sessions and by the end of the session and for the rest of the day, I found myself really stuttering.
Sometimes people need to learn to quiet fighting themselves and each other. My fellow people who stutter, sisters and brothers, no one is alone. There are people searching for you as hard as you are searching for them and the key is that we all can learn from each other. Wisdom, sympathy, experience, creativity and compassion are some of the qualities of people who stutter. So, be proud, talk freely (loud), know thyself, and be heard so others will get to know you and what you have to say. I hope one day as a PWS that I can help other PWS the way one PWS has helped me. If I can be of any help to you please let me know! I wish each of you the best of success on your journeys.
Ask yourself the following questions. If you’re comfortable to do so, share them in the discussion for this paper:
- Have you ever worked with a speech therapist that has or does stutter?
- Do you think that speech therapist who do or have stutter can offer something in therapy that other speech therapist cannot, if so, what?
- How do you feel about the different types of stuttering treatment (fluency shaping, stuttering modification, integrated treatment and individualized treatment); what types of treatment you have you received?
- What do you think about speech therapy in the schools?
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