If you stutter more, you’ll be fine. Imagine telling a 12-year-old that.
“It’s a tough sell,” says Kim Sabourin, an instructor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders who founded Speak Now, a one-week summer camp for children and adolescents who stutter. But here, that’s exactly what they learn: that allowing themselves to stutter can be a good thing. That they can be successful later in life. And that it’s okay to stutter.
Sabourin, who is a speech-language pathologist and board certified specialist in fluency disorders, says that the traditional approach of one-on-one speech therapy is important for children who stutter, because it can teach them strategies to manage their disfluent speech. But it often provides only part of what they need as they learn to live with the disorder. “Here, they’re dealing with things that aren’t addressed in speech therapy: how they think about their stuttering, and how they think about themselves,” says Sabourin. Speak Now helps campers and their families see both of those differently—and that new mindset can make all the difference.
We spoke with Sabourin and Joy I., a parent of one of this year’s campers, about Speak Now.
What makes Speak Now different from typical speech therapy for stuttering?
Kim Sabourin: We don’t focus on strategy practice, because a lot of their speech therapy has already given them those tools. We’re focused on getting them to take more risks with speaking. We create a lot of activities that require interaction and team-building. They don’t know they’re getting into that when they come, but when they start doing it, they’re successful and enjoying themselves. When these kids are brought together in a community of others just like them, they start to see: “Those other kids stutter. And I like those kids. They’re normal, and smart, and they’re not weird.” It’s a good confidence-builder.
Why is it important for kids to think about their stuttering in new ways?
This is a place where kids can stutter openly—it’s important to help them de-stigmatize stuttering. Kids who stutter are often afraid to admit it and may try to hide or suppress it. But the more effort they put into hiding or suppressing it, the worse it becomes. We’re trying to help these kids be more accepting of themselves so that they don’t put so much effort into hiding their speech.
The more people understand how their condition works, the more effectively they can manage it. We teach campers to experiment with their speech—to mimic their stuttering, or try an easier form of stuttering that’s tension-free or struggle-free. It gives the body a chance to tolerate and experience stuttering without all of the reactions that go along with it. That’s part of getting over the stigma of it. And it’s part of the empowerment process—the more empowered they are, the more likely they’re going to carry over what they’ve learned after camp ends.
What is parents’ role in this process?
Parents are invited to the first day of camp, where I teach them about the philosophy of treatment and how things are going to shift away from practicing strategies and into understanding stuttering a little better.
On the last day of camp, parents spend the entire day with us. We pair them with children other than their own, and we ask the children questions about stuttering. They talk very openly about how stuttering impacts their lives, their hopes and their fears. Most of what the kids say is, “You know, I’m really just an ordinary kid. I wish my mom would know that I’m really OK.” And because the parents are hearing it from another kid, they’re able to take it in a bit differently.
Joy, this year was the first time your ten-year-old son Jack attended Speak Now. What was his experience like?
Joy I.: One of the biggest obstacles for him is his self-consciousness about his speech. He didn’t want anybody to know about his speech issues—if we went out in public, he was very afraid that people would hear him stutter. So he was nervous on the first day of camp. But by the end of the week he absolutely loved it. I asked him, ‘what was so special about all of those kids?” He said, “I just felt so comfortable with them—I understood them, and they understood me.”
Being around a community of other children who stutter was an instant bonding experience for him. I think he saw that they were interesting and smart, and he realized that he has those qualities too—and that maybe he doesn’t have to be so guarded.
What do you think Jack took away from his experience at Speak Now?
It’s taken his speech to a whole new level. Before this, if he had to do something in front of a group at school, there was a lot of tears and anxiety the night before. But on the last day of the camp, the kids hosted a talent show, and Jack got up in front of everyone and perform. He wasn’t nervous at all. I’m hopeful that going forward he’ll realize, “If I can do that, I can get up and be in a class play, or make a speech in front of my classmates.”