SLH clinic camp aims to beat fear of stuttering

11:29:08 AM CDT - Thursday, July 19, 2007

By Shannon Littlejohn

At Fluency Camp, the goal is not to help children talk without stuttering. They have to learn to talk about stuttering first, said Brian Ray, camp counselor and clinical educator at WSU’s Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic.

Usually, the onset of stuttering begins with the uttering of complete sentences, somewhere between ages 2 and 4, Ray said. About 80 percent of children recover by age 6. After that, the chances of recovery begin to decrease significantly. 

For those who don’t recover, about 1 percent (3 million) of the U.S. population and majority male, the fear of stumbling over words can affect all levels of communication and their academic, social and vocational prospects.

For adults, the stress can take a toll on careers and marriages, and even inform such decisions as where they live: Ray even had a client who picked his house based on the ease with which he could say the street name. Besides avoiding words that trip them up, Ray said, many people hide by not talking much at all.

“Everytime you open your mouth you might feel out of control,” he said. “Stuttering just pervasively affects your life.”

The camp strives to show children that they can still be effective communicators despite getting stuck with their speech, Ray said. The goals of the camp are to improve attitudes about stuttering; create and share information about it; manage it in different ways; develop problem solving skills; and increase positive social interaction skills.

“The focus of our camp is problem-solving overall but also self-determination,” he said. “They have something they didn’t ask for – an adult-sized problem for a kid. They just want it to go away.”

Stuttering is both frustrating and embarrassing to deal with, said Ray, whose own childhood was marked by it to the extent that, by high school, he had developed his own way around it by closing his eyes whenever he talked. “I didn’t stutter when my eyes were closed.”

People who develop their own methods – substituting words, for another example – learn that some are productive and some are not, he said. Ray’s closed eyes not only didn’t enable good communication, the tactic finally quit keeping the stuttering at bay. “I needed quite a lot of therapy to quit trying to fool people,” he said.

Now Ray meets people with a hand extended and direct eye contact, a relaxed warmth about him. He speaks with ease and confidence in spite of an occasional stumble. He simply moves on, instead of hiding in fear of the stuttering.

Teaching children to beat that fear is what the Fluency Camp aims to do. It’s an innovative and alternative approach to more traditional speech therapy. In the camp’s model, developed by Ray and clinical educator Dennis Cairns, the focus is on effective communication skills and problem-solving while speaking, whether stuttering or not. In a frequently used therapy model, the focus is on decreasing stuttering by smoothing fluency through relaxed breathing, vocal folds and articulation.

“Our camp is designed to supplement those typical services,” said Ray, a WSU graduate who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication sciences and disorders (CSD) in 1985 and 1988 respectively. The Speech-Language-Hearing clinic is administered through CSD, which is housed in the College of Health Professions.

Ray co-directs the Fluency Camp with Cairns, another WSU graduate. The camp, this year from July 23-27, also provides solid practicum experience for about a half-dozen CSD graduate students every year.

Professional surveys show that many speech and language pathologists feel inadequate dealing with school-age children who stutter, Ray said, because of the emotional issues associated with it. Those come from a number of affective and environmental factors.

For instance, well-meaning people often interrupt someone who is stuttering with what they see as constructive suggestions to relax, slow down or “think about what you’re trying to say.” Those kinds of moments just make it harder to overcome fear, Ray said, and increase the likelihood of more severe stuttering.

Ray compares the reaction to a child’s finger trap toy, a simple puzzle that captures its victims’ fingers in opposite ends of a small, woven bamboo cylinder. The more they pull to escape the trap, the more it tightens.

That’s why it’s important to give children the skill sets to become more effective communicators, even with stuttering, said Ray. Speech language pathology is becoming better as a profession, he said, not only at documenting the ABCs of stuttering, but recognizing that feelings and attitudes sometimes have to be addressed before smoothing speech fluency can start.

For the 8- to 12-year-olds in the clinic camp, stuttering takes on a life of its own. The children are encouraged to personify stuttering by working as investigative reporters, Ray said, which in turn helps them develop a sense of advocacy. They’ll have two field trips to news outlets – KSN-TV Ch. 3 and The Wichita Eagle – to talk about investigating and interviewing with reporters.

Their assignment is to find out more about stuttering and compare its goals to what good communication is. They interview local adults who have had to deal with stuttering. They collect information about stuttering. They learn about the stuttering of such famous people as John Stossel, TV news reporter; Winston Churchill, statesman and orator; Bruce Willis, actor; Julia Roberts, actress; Bo Jackson, athlete; Carly Simon, singer; U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden; and many more.

Camp participants stow their reports and essays in a resource notebook that is theirs to keep. Campers sometimes draw stuttering or do a biography of stuttering from “his” point of view. By assigning personality to stuttering, said Ray, kids are able to externalize it and tackle its fear factor.

“You beat fear so you can say what you want when you want,” Ray said. “Run away, and it will control you.”

They practice how to send the right message with good eye contact and body language. They figure out how to break down a question or problem by considering a plan, examining their choices and picking a strategy to carry out their plan. They also play games that require team communication to reap the positive feelings from communicating well and, therefore, playing well.

“Stuttering wants you to think you can’t do anything about it; that there’s nothing about stuttering but misery,” said Ray.

WSU’s Fluency Camp busts that myth and many others.

For more information about the WSU Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic’s Fluency Camp, which still has a few openings, contact Brian Ray, (316) 978-3289 or brian.ray@wichita.edu.

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