by Melanie Haiken

By the time she was six years old, my daughter Linnea had almost stopped talking. Although she was one of the best students in her grade, she refused to raise her hand in class. When I drove a carpool full of loud, giggling girls chattering about their latest adventures, I’d be overwhelmed with despair as Linnea sat silently, unable to get her words out fast enough to be part of the flow of conversation.

Stuttering is a mysterious speech disorder. What’s known now—but only recently accepted—is that stuttering is a neurological problem, a breakdown between the brain and the mechanisms of speech. It’s not psychological, and it’s not purely physical: Stuttering can’t be overcome simply by slowing down, taking deep breaths or any of the other advice parents of kids who stutter are constantly bombarded with.

The Oscar-winning movie The King’s Speech focused national attention on stuttering and laid to rest some—though not all—of the misunderstandings and myths about stuttering and those who stutter. Linnea’s stutter is very much like that depicted so brilliantly by Colin Firth in the movie. Rather than the “Th-th-that’s all folks!” type of stutter made famous by Porky Pig, Linnea’s takes the form of “full blocks,” in which no sound comes out. When she tries to force her words past the block, her mouth grimaces, her face tenses and she sometimes moves her head to the side or back.

These “secondary characteristics” are one of the most misunderstood aspects of stuttering. At one point a well-regarded neurologist actually diagnosed her as having a tic disorder and prescribed anti-seizure medication—failing to notice that her “tics” were only present when she was trying to talk.

Seeking help
We started Linnea in speech therapy at the age of three, as soon as her preschool teacher gently told us she needed help. And we’ve tried many, many approaches—at last count, Linnea estimates she’s seen 15 different therapists. Some of the therapy was helpful; Linnea learned fluency techniques that help her manage her stutter so it’s less noticeable. But as any person who stutters can tell you, these techniques only go so far, and it’s an exhausting process for people who stutter to constantly monitor and try to control their speech. And the lack of progress can be incredibly demoralizing: At one point, Linnea began crawling under the table during school-ordered speech therapy because she was so frustrated.

The turning point
Today at 16, Linnea is almost unrecognizable as that silent little girl. She no longer lets her stuttering stop her from doing anything she wants to do, including speaking in public. At the end of eighth grade, she secretly entered a competition to give a graduation speech, and she won. As she stood at the podium and spoke to more than a thousand people, hankies were passed around. Last winter she not only signed up for her high school’s Mock Trial but asked to be the prosecutor, which required giving a timed closing argument.

What made the difference? Through the support of other kids who stutter, Linnea has learned to accept herself fully as a person who stutters. And through the example of many accomplished adults who stutter, she’s discovered that being a good communicator is by no means the same thing as being a person who can always speak fluently.

These revelations came to us through a wonderful organization called FRIENDS: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter, which hosts workshops and conferences around the country. Within minutes of being introduced to a group of kids who stutter at her first FRIENDS conference, a miracle started to happen. Linnea, who at that point almost never spoke, spent the next three days laughing and stuttering away, and nothing’s been the same since.

Through FRIENDS, Linnea discovered another program for kids who stutter, the Our Time Theater Company, based out of New York City. When Our Time started a summer camp for kids who stutter, she joined up, and has attended every summer since. These two programs have introduced Linnea —and indeed the whole family—to a vibrant national community of kids and adults who stutter. It’s an experience I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

Advice for adults
What would I like to say to other parents of kids who stutter? Don’t despair. Stuttering doesn’t have to limit what your child can do in life. All people who stutter need is for the world to understand, and give them time and acceptance to say what they want to say, no matter how long it takes.

What would I like to say to the many adults I know who stutter? You’re the bravest people I know, and you have the most inspirational stories. Kristin Chmela, a wonderful speech therapist and advocate for those who stutter, often says, “People who stutter teach the world to listen.” I wish everyone in the world could know someone who stutters and learn this important lesson.

Are you the parent or friend of someone who stutters? Check out these resources:

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