A problem of kings, commoners

Stuttering: Tacoma workshop Saturday

February 27, 2011 

If it were up to him, 13-year-old Chase Cloutier would give tonight's Academy Award for best actor to Colin Firth for his portrayal of King George VI in "The King's Speech."

The Gig Harbor youth wouldn’t be afraid to hand the Oscar to Firth and say a few words in front of millions of viewers, even though he shares a noticeable trait with the British ruler. Chase stutters.

“It’s a good, good, movie of a person who stutters who overcomes his fears,” Chase said in an interview. “He still stuttered in the end. Cause you know ... you can’t be magically cured.”

Chase and countless other people who stutter are praising “The King’s Speech” as a movie that offers a realistic glimpse into the sometimes agonizing, sometimes triumphant world of people who stutter.

Firth’s King George VI, called Bertie by his family, finds himself uncomfortably thrust into the spotlight in 1936 when his brother gives up the throne to marry an American divorcee. Bertie has stammered all his life and dreads being in the position of having to speak officially, especially in public. The movie focuses on Bertie’s therapy with an Australian elocutionist.

The film has won accolades from groups representing speech therapists and people who stutter for raising public awareness about stuttering. Speech-language pathologists have encouraged their adolescent and adult clients who stutter to see the movie, which is rated R.

It’s sure to be a topic of discussion at the 14th Annual Stuttering Workshop at Larchmont Elementary School in Tacoma on Saturday. Many families who have attended in the past say it’s a life-changing event that allows children who stutter to finally meet other kids and adults who stutter.

“Most movies portray stuttering in a negative light. It’s either something to be laughed at, or a person who’s mentally unstable stutters. That’s not what stuttering is like,” said Tacoma speech-language pathologist Elaine Saitta, who also stutters. “The general consensus is it’s nice to see a movie that portrays stuttering in more of a real way. It’s not perfect, but it does a pretty good job.”

Saitta, who runs a support group for teens who stutter, organized an outing for them and their parents to see the movie and talk about it.

The families all could identify with one particularly painful scene in which Bertie fails miserably as he stands before a microphone trying to speak at a stadium packed with spectators.

“Watching him struggle and that feeling of being stuck and everyone staring at you is a feeling people who stutter understand very well,” Saitta said.

Even the most mundane activities, from buying a candy bar to answering the phone, can be difficult for people who stutter. Some people who stutter do whatever they can to avoid the situations altogether.

“It can be very handicapping if the person allows it to be,” said Staci Schmitt, a speech-language pathologist in Olympia. “Someone can stutter a lot but not be bothered by it. Others might have more of a mild stutter but are very conscious of it; it impacts their lives because they don’t want to talk.”

That’s where Chase was until he began therapy with Saitta a couple of years ago.

“I wouldn’t talk a whole lot in class and around school. I wouldn’t raise my hand to answer a question, or talk to kids to ask them for a pencil or if I could have help with a project or anything,” said Chase, a seventh-grader at Kopachuck Middle School.

“I was just scared they would mimic me or tease me or something like that. I have been teased before, quite a few times. It made me feel a bit bad. It’s something I can’t change.”

Preschoolers who stutter as part of their language development often outgrow it, but most youth who stutter into adolescence will continue to stutter, Saitta said. “Adults who stutter will probably always stutter,” she said.

Researchers aren’t exactly sure what causes stuttering, but believe it involves a combination of genetics, neurological predisposition and the environment. It’s not caused by nervousness, lack of intelligence or a psychological problem. “I often tell people I don’t stutter because I’m nervous,” Saitta said, “I’m nervous because I stutter.”

With therapy, people can learn to manage their stuttering. It may involve techniques, such as gliding into a word or focusing on how sounds are produced. One labor-intensive technique, for instance, requires a person to speak in chunks of three or four words, then take a breath, Schmitt said. Some methods show people how to “pull out” and move on if they’ve already gotten stuck on a word.

“The other thing I work really hard on is acceptance, and just being OK with it. The more we fight it, the more it will happen,” Saitta said. “The goal of therapy is often to be able to say what you want to say when you want to say it.”

Since each person’s speech impediment is unique, therapies vary significantly with each individual.

And techniques have changed radically since the 1930s when Bertie was searching for help.

Talking with marbles in the mouth, smoking to relax the larynx, and swearing – tasks that experts have Bertie attempt to stop stuttering – have been shown to be ineffective, Schmitt said.

“The therapy was painful to watch,” she said. “That was before the field (of speech-language pathology) was established.”

But some of the therapies enlisted by Bertie’s therapist, Lionel Logue, played by actor Geoffrey Rush, are used successfully today. Talking in different social settings is a commonly used tool.

In his therapy with Saitta, Chase said, “she taught me to advertise, which is you go up to shops and to people and tell them you stutter and ask if they’ve known anyone who stutters and what their stuttering was like. Or it can be as helpful as saying, ‘My name is Chase. How much does this cost?’”

He didn’t stop at one-on-one conversations. In sixth grade, he gave a speech about stuttering to his leadership class. On National Stuttering Awareness Day last October, he stepped onto the school stage to talk about stuttering, and manned a table to hand out buttons and brochures about stuttering.

“It was awesome,” Chase said. Students told him, “‘I didn’t know you stutter. That’s cool.’ I got a lot of good, good comments.”

Through practice and therapy, he said, “probably the biggest thing I learned was to be OK with it. ... Otherwise I wouldn’t get to speak with The News Tribune, write a paper, speak at school or be on the radio. It’s opened a lot of great opportunities for me.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694 debby.abe@thenewstribune.com

stuttering workshop

What: National Stuttering Association Tacoma/South Puget Sound 14th Annual Stuttering Workshop

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday

Where: Larchmont Elementary School, 8601 E. B St., Tacoma

Cost: Free, though donations are accepted

Who: For children who stutter and their parents

Details: Workshops on stuttering led by national and local experts; kids games and activities, free pizza lunch.

Preregistration and info: Mary Turcotte at 360-507-4761 or mturcotte@osd.wednet.edu; Connie Haines at 253-677-6800 or ConnieDHaines@gmail.com; Douglas Wing at 253-314-1745 or douggloriawing@msn.com.

Sponsors: Tacoma, Sumner and Olympia school districts; Pepsi of Tacoma.

Articles on stuttering and “The King’s Speech”: National Stuttering Association at www.nsastutter.org or The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Leader at www.asha.org/leader.aspx.

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