Growing up I didn’t go to anything remotely similar to a Friends Convention. Despite a family history of stuttering, my family wasn’t interested learning a great deal about the disorder. My dad received a couple months of therapy as a young adult. I received therapy beginning in late elementary school all the way through the end of high school. My speech therapist conveyed all the information we needed about stuttering (or rather, all the information we knew we needed to know). In the end all worked out fine—I’m a fully functioning adult. I’ve experienced success in my life— I know how to communicate with people effectively, I’ve held a job for an extended period of time, and now I’m working on a PhD. I think it’s safe to say that stuttering did not hold me back. Or rather, I didn’t let stuttering hold me back.
Despite my success, I experienced trials in life that perhaps weren’t necessary—or at the very least were more difficult than they had to be. My family didn’t know about stuttering. We didn’t know there was a group—specifically designed for children who stutter and their families. I didn’t have the foresight to talk to my speech therapist about talking to my parents about stuttering. Looking back, I’m not sure my therapist was equipped to talk to me about how to talk to my parents about stuttering. My family and I needed to attend a Friends Convention, we just didn’t know we needed one.
Fast-forward 10 years. I’m a speech-language pathologist, PhD student interested in the problem of stuttering from a clinical and research perspective, and I’m attending a self-help conference specifically designed for children who stutter and their parents. Initially, I’m not sure what to expect. I’m mostly familiar with academic conferences—most presentations talk about an empirical question. Rarely do presenters talk about dealing with stuttering on a personal level.
I was blown away by the community at Friends. Some parents showed an impressive degree of trust and vulnerability. This was met by overwhelming support from other parents. I was impressed by the courage of the adolescents and children who voluntarily took the microphone during “open mic.” I was encouraged by the number of speech-language pathologists attending with a student on their caseload and his/her family. These SLPs will return practitioners more competent in the management of stuttering—managing stuttering beyond providing skilled practice.
Now, more than before, I have the impression that stuttering does not just affect the individual, but it is a disorder that affects the entire family—particularly parents. This is not to downplay the impact of stuttering on the individual. Certainly, the individual bears the largest proportion of stuttering. That burden is, however, shared amongst the stakeholders. I left the convention pledging that I would become more involved in the self-help world. I will join the National Stuttering Association. At some point I will attend a NSA conference. And mostly, I hope to return to a Friends Convention.
A Bit About My Research
The cause of stuttering is one that is very difficult to study. This is partly because stuttering doesn’t often appear when the child first begins to speak—it appears after the child has achieved some degree of mastery in his language. One aspect of stuttering that is easier to study than the onset is the high degree of unassisted recovery. Approximately 75% of children who stutter will experience a recovery from stuttering approximately 6-36 months after stuttering first appears. As speech scientists we are interested in knowing what factors contribute to this recovery. We want to know what is different about those children who recover from those who persist.
This line of thinking often takes us away from speech and language. For example, my research is focuses on working memory. Working memory is a specific type of memory that helps us complete complex tasks. Without working memory you would forget the beginning of this sentence by the time you reach the end. Working memory is an essential part of perceiving and producing language.
Based on what we know about how we produce speech, working memory helps get the sounds for words (phonemes) in the right order. Some theories of stuttering suggest that part of the problem contributing to stuttering is errors in the order of phonemes. Every speaker occasionally has errors in the order of phonemes—slips of the tongue are a perfect example. These errors are small and typically don’t cause a problem to the speech production system. If an error is big, speech is stopped (a moment of stuttering) in an attempt to let the speech system get the phonemes in the right order. Working memory is an essential piece in making sure the phonemes are in the correct order.
One way of measuring working memory is by measuring how groups of neurons in the brain respond to a stimulus. We can do this by measuring very small electrical changes in the brain. When we add these very small changes together we get a good picture of when neurons respond. These are called Event-Related Potentials (ERP). A lot of research has been gone into letting us know what cognitive events are conveyed in ERP. One of the events ERP can measure is how working memory is functioning.
In the Stuttering Research Lab at the University of Iowa we use ERP to measure working memory. We place an elastic cap with 32 electrodes on a child’s head. The electrodes in the cap aren’t very effective at measuring the tiny electrical changes in the brain by themselves, so we have to fill each electrode with a conductive gel. The process of putting the cap on takes about 15 minutes. Once the cap is in place we put headphones on the children’s ears. The children listen to a series of beeps. Most of the beeps (about 80%) are at a lower frequency and the rest of the beeps (20%) are at a higher frequency. We measure how the neurons in the brain respond to the frequent (low) beeps compared to the infrequent (high) beeps. The part of the ERP that measures working memory is bigger for the infrequent (high) beeps compared to the frequent (low). It’s helpful to think that the brain makes a bigger response for the rare stimulus. As if the brain was thinking, “this one’s different than the ones before, I should pay more attention.”
There is some evidence that some preschool children who stutter have working memory systems that don’t work the same way as children who do not stutter. This evidence, coming from Purdue University, only looked at pre-school children. I am interested in the same phenomenon, but I am looking at working memory in children across a time span of several years. This will hopefully provide us with evidence as to how the working memory system develops in children who stutter compared to children who do not stutter.
You might be asking yourself, “so what?”. Well, that’s an important question. If we find that children who to stutter have working memory systems that are different from children who don’t stutter we are closer to understanding the mechanism that causes stuttering. What I would be most excited to find would be a difference in working memory between children who persist to stutter from those who recover from stuttering. This provides some evidence that working memory is a factor that contributes to the recovery from stuttering. However, I think that what we will find is evidence that there are different types of stuttering. This is very important point. When we study stuttering we are looking at group phenomena—aspects of stuttering that the entire population of people who stutter show. This doesn’t mean that every individual will show this trait. If there are subgroups within stuttering then we are able to ask questions about a more specific group. This will help us more closely examine the problem of developmental stuttering.