I had no idea what to expect when I decided to enlist as a volunteer at the FRIENDS Convention in Chicago. Since I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into, I decided to throw away any expectations and approach this new experience with an open mind.

As an aspiring clinician, I was excited to learn about stuttering and get exposure to people who stutter. I had read in the ASHA Leader that the majority of Speech- Language Pathologists in the public schools did not feel adequately prepared to provide therapy for children who stutter and in the same statistic, the majority of SLPs in the school did not feel comfortable providing services for children who stutter. Alarmed and appalled, I promised myself that I would never far into this statistic.

On the flight over to Chicago I had time to consider my limited knowledge about fluency and my limited exposure to people who stutter. This past spring I was assigned a client who was considered a moderate-severe person who stutters. Of all my clients that semester, I felt the most uncomfortable with this one because I simply did not understand why he was not using his techniques and why it was so difficult for therapy to carry-over into his life. I did not fully appreciate the depth of my misunderstanding until the end of the convention.

The first activity I was assigned to was the scavenger hunt. I could immediately tell which children were seasoned FRIENDS convention attendees and which ones were, like me, experiencing this event for the first time. Although most children share in their playfully uninhibited and rambunctious demeanor, some were simply more reticent than others.

One of the greatest perks of being a male speech pathologist is the immediate influence on youngsters, especially the boys, and the magnetism that comes with it. It was delightful to see how quickly my group of boys got comfortable with each other, but what was even more remarkable was the way each one patiently waited through every block, prolongation and repetition with an inherent understanding and unbiased patience. Later that night at the opening ceremony, I witnessed first hand the sheer magic that is FRIENDS. There was an overwhelming exuberance in the air. A sense of unity and transcendence filled the room as story after story of courageous advancement was told. I began to appreciate the “struggle” that was stuttering. Little did I know that my interpretation of this struggle would evolve into something far more powerful and prolific.

As the convention progressed I had the opportunity to participate in several workshops that afforded me an understanding of stuttering that would shape my perceptions as a clinician. At the “Teasing” Workshop, I helped coach a role playing session that allowed children who stutter the chance to be at both sides of spectrum, playing both bully and “poor, sad child who stutters” which was the facetious moniker given to the ones being teased. To hear the deflated viciousness of these composed insults was a testament to the relentless hardships that these children all witness too frequently in their lives. It also served as a commentary on the delicate social fabric of society and the persistent cruelty that shapes our upbringing. The children who stutter were not taught to simply “tattle tale” as some of their peers would call it, but much rather, resilience and independence. They were given the confidence to stand up for themselves by saying “I stutter so you deal with it,” and then walk away with their heads up high.

I had a chance to sit in on a lecture by Heather Grossman about the research she was doing on voluntary stuttering or “easy stuttering.” This technique changes the listening dynamic by having the person who stutters volitionally present their stuttering, allowing the listener to become more familiar and expecting of stuttering. I was able to hear from other clinicians about their reaction to this therapy technique. By witnessing this dialogue, I was able to consider the application of this technique as well the rationale behind its usage. The response by other SLPs was extremely helpful in helping me create realistic ways of presenting this technique and understanding some of the possible reactions the client might have to this approach.

Later while I was running the “Stuttering Jeopardy” station at the Stuttering Olympics, I had the opportunity to listen to children and adolescent responses to why they use voluntary stuttering. One adolescent said, “it can be however long you want it to be and you can show people that you stutter.” A peer from across the table promptly added, “it also tells you how patient the listener is.” One of the universal responses that I heard from the eight groups of ten was that “it takes the stress off the stutter and gives you more control.” These answers earned the highest possible points in the game, but for me, it was the most valuable feedback I could have possibly heard as an aspiring clinician.

The insights provided by researchers, clinicians and clients themselves were absolutely invaluable to my education as an aspiring Speech-Language Pathologist. In a lecture by Dr. Lisa Scott, she underscored the importance of considering how your clients or local population should serve as the rationale for an evidence-based practice. The efficacy of Dr. Scott’s statement is best presented by considering the positive responses from the clinicians and the clients I had collaborated with.

In the end when I consider the affective, behavioral and cognitive changes of the people I observed, I am overwhelmed with inspiration and resolve. The courage and persistence that I experienced watching these children, adolescents and adults who stutter was as inspiring as it was life affirming. I saw children, who at the beginning of the conference were reserved and reluctant to participate, blossom with confidence and respond to the question “what is stuttering?” by saying “it is who I am.”

I saw the adults who stutter watch the children learn and grow all the while wishing that they had this blessing that is FRIENDS when they were growing up. This bittersweet envy is overshadowed by the ecstasy of knowing that their suffering is an artifact of the past. Knowing that these children who stutter will not face the same hardships that they had is a testament to the life-changing importance of FRIENDS.

I witnessed the evolution from perceiving at one time a condemning curse and now a prolific blessing. For what greater gift I thought. Everyone at this convention is building a foundation of confidence and integrity that most people live their whole lives without. To see this transformation and experience the unity and endless gratitude touched the very core of what it means to be alive and breathing. I felt the unconditional love that everyone who stutters, and doesn’t stutter, should feel. I made friendships that will last a lifetime. I never could have imagined that there were so many friends out there.

Matthew Criscuola – August 2010

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