Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that my husband Woody and I were in Philadelphia last week where Woody was recognized for his leadership and work in the field of stuttering. The new “Woody Starkweather Intensive Stuttering Program” at Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP) is now alive and well.
Today, I want to talk about stuttering, my husband, and how proud I am of him.
While Woody’s main profession since the late 1960s has been as a professor of speech pathology, first at Hunter College in New York, then at Temple University in Philadelphia, he always maintained a private practice, seeing clients who struggled with their speech. In other words, people who stutter.
If you printed out his full resume, it’d be over an inch thick. So, I’ll just run through the highlights of his 30 + year career.
- He published much: nine books (including our jointly authored award-winning text Stuttering) and a slew of articles and chapters. That’s because he wakes up at 4 a.m. He’s always done that. With no cows to milk, what else is there to do but write?
- He spoke at lots of conferences around the world. Often as the keynote speaker. That’s because he’s a very entertaining, eloquent, and educational speaker.
- He helped create and then served as the first president of the International Fluency Association. That’s because he sees the possibilities that can come when good folks get together.
- He wrote the guidelines for practice adopted by ASHA, the American Speech and Hearing Association, for stuttering therapy. That’s because he’s a great writer (and once worked for ASHA as their publications editor).
- He created and ran an email discussion list serve from Temple University (STUTT-L, from 1988 to 2003) that brought stutterers from all over the world together with those doing research in stuttering. (And it brought us together too.) That’s because he believes that speech therapists can learn most of what they need to know about stuttering from the person who stutters.
- He worked with me to provide stuttering workshops and intensive retreats around the world and in our homes in Chincoteague, VA and Philadelphia, PA for people who stutter and the professionals who treat them. That’s because he had much to offer, even after he retired from Temple.
- He worked personally with thousands of stuttering clients. That’s because he cares.
One of those former clients, Sean Frankel, recently made a significant contribution to the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania (commonly known as CHOP) to endow a new stuttering program. Run by Dr. Joseph Donaher, a former student of Woody’s at Temple University, the program will henceforth be known as the Woody Starkweather Intensive Stuttering Program.
As a person who grew up stuttering and who allowed that stutter to “drive my bus” (as I like to say) for far too many years, I’m aware of how much misinformation is still afloat out there. What better way to help minimize that, than to let Woody answer a few questions that I know lay folks often think. And I know this because I once heard these questions myself.
Why can’t stutterers just relax?
This assumes that stuttering is caused by tension or anxiety. It’s not and telling someone to relax is counterproductive. It’s more likely that the stuttering causes anxiety than the other way around and few people can voluntarily relax when they are feeling tense. You try it. The request to relax introduces more tension than was present to begin with.
Why can’t they just talk more slowly?
When a stutterer slows down, he does often speak with more fluency, for a while. But talking more slowly isn’t easy for anyone to do except for a short period of time. So, it is not really a practical solution. And consider that talking more slowly means that the person will take longer to say what he wants, which is what stuttering does too. So talking slowly is just substituting one form of slowed communication for another.
I stutter now and then. But I’m not a stutterer, am I?
Probably not. Everyone stumbles in their speech from time to time, but the nonstutterer usually corrects the stumble and moves on without any emotional reaction. I often introduce myself as a “normally disfluent speaker.” Real stutterers get stuck more noticeably and with more muscular tension. Many of them have an emotional reaction too, as they struggle and fight with a recalcitrant speech mechanism. It is not the original stumble, the core stutter, but the resultant struggle and the emotional reaction that make stuttering a problem.
I know someone at work who stutters. He never talks about it, so when he starts stuttering or gets stuck on a sound, I never know what to do. I get frustrated waiting for him. Sometimes I know what he’s going to say and I just say it for him. Is there something I could say or do that would help him talk better?
Realize that you are probably not as frustrated as he is. Just wait for him to finish. Don’t supply words for him or try to finish his sentences. Stutterers hate that. He can speak for himself, although it might take a little more time. Be patient. Listen to the ideas he is trying to convey, rather than the way he is saying them. He’s trying to communicate to you, so don’t get in the way of that.
What’s the most important piece of information to impart about stuttering in a forum like this? Here’s your chance.
Stuttering is like snowflakes, in that no two stutterers are going to stutter the same way. It’s very individualistic. While it may begin in a fairly predictable way — the intuitive reaction for a child when confronted with frustration is to push harder — the course it follows is entirely dependent upon the way the child himself, his parents, listeners, and significant others in his life, react. If the child can’t talk about what is happening when he tries to speak, shame will be the inevitable result; then it’ll get really complicated.
And that’s where we will end. With the idea that TALKING ABOUT stuttering is a good thing. An open heart, a curious mind, and a compassionate soul will guide you in the how. But talk about it we must. We must get stuttering out of that closet that shame.
One of my former clients there to say hello reminded me of something I had once said that had stayed with him ever since (we’re talking twenty years here). “Yes, I stutter. But I also sneeze.” I imagine I went on to say that both interrupt my speech in the moment. Why do we give so much more attention to the stuttering?
How about you? Does someone you know stutter? Have you ever asked those questions we asked above? Are there any other questions you’d like answered about this very unusual disorder?
Next week: We’ll start a new series with a group of women with a perspective on the USA that might be different than we’re used to.