For new clients to the Stuttering Intervention Clinic, the first step of therapy is often unlearning most of what they know about stuttering.
Over time, many clients—who range from young children to adults—have learned avoidance behaviors: Some withdraw from speaking and avoid opportunities to talk; they choose a job that allows them to mostly keep quiet; and others experience physical struggle from their stutter, such as tapping a leg or repeatedly tilting their head. In addition, from childhood, people who stutter typically are told to take a deep breath, relax and take their time. In many kinds of therapy, it’s sound advice.
But for stuttering, all of these strategies end up blocking communication even more than does the stutter itself, says Kim Sabourin, instructor of communication sciences and disorders and supervisor of the clinic.
“There’s stuttering, and then there are all of the things that people do to hide and suppress stuttering,” she said. “We first try and strip away some of that added struggle. From there, we can work on modifying actual stuttering.”
Housed in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders’ Speech-Language-Hearing Center, the Stuttering Intervention Clinic provides clients with techniques to move forward in their communication rather than hinder it. Clinicians, all of whom are graduate students in the Master of Science in Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences (SLH) program, help clients identify their avoidance tactics and learn to desensitize to stuttering. From there, clients learn techniques all specialized to the individual situation—to move forward in communication. For example, they may learn the basic mechanics of speech and how to physically “get the voice moving” by initiating airflow and making noise, rather than suppressing it.
Nicholas Bruno, a graduate student who has helped as a counselor with the clinic’s Speak Now summer camp and will work in the clinic as part of the SLH program, has a personal understanding of the dynamic nature of the treatment. As someone who has undergone stuttering therapy himself, Bruno said that it can feel different from other speech therapies.
“There’s an emotional aspect to stuttering,” he said. “A big thing for adults, for example, is facing social fears...But what’s important isn’t necessarily getting them to stop stuttering, but getting them to say it in a way that isn’t painful.”
Outcomes vary: Some clients end up with speech abilities so uninhibited that a listener could never tell they had a stutter; others learn to stutter in a way that feels natural and moves the conversation forward. Both cases are considered a success—while new clients often say they “want to be fluent,” the most meaningful goals are acceptance and communication.
In addition to individual therapy and the Speak Now camp, the clinic holds weekly support group sessions. Clinicians also counsel and educate parents of children who stutter, teaching them strategies to help facilitate fluency and how to acknowledge stuttering. It’s important for parents to acknowledge stuttering in a positive way, said Sabourin. Rather than ignore it, parents should provide reassurance that it’s okay to stutter sometimes. She added that children should not be made to feel that their stutter is wrong, which is often how they perceive a parent who is trying hard to not bring attention to the stutter.
It’s a point that Bruno echoed when relating his own attempts to work toward more forward-moving communication.
“Self-acceptance is the most important thing,” he said. “When I stopped trying to be fluent all of the time, I ended up becoming more fluent”
Photo caption: A student works with a child in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders' Speak Now summer camp.
— Chris Sarachilli