‘The King’s Speech’ puts stuttering in spotlight
“The King’s Speech,” the Oscar-nominated movie about the relationship between the king of England and his speech therapist, is putting the national spotlight on stuttering.
And that’s good news, says Dr. Charley Adams, a clinical assistant professor and speech language pathologist at the University of South Carolina’s Speech and Hearing Research Center and a chapter leader of the National Stuttering Association.
“It would be nice if we lived in a world where people were judged by what they said and not how they said it,” Adams said. “While there is no cure, today’s speech-language pathologists can help most people who stutter improve their fluency, especially in combination with support groups.”
“The King’s Speech” tells the story of how an amateur Australian actor and self-styled speech therapist helped Prince Albert acquire the confidence and skills to overcome his stuttering and anxiety to become King George VI.
Adams, who has seen the movie with members of his stuttering support group, said it offers an accurate representation of stuttering. “It shows not just the behaviors themselves, but it also gives you a sense of the shame and anxiety that stuttering can bring and often does bring.”
Throughout history, treatment for stuttering has ranged from cutting out parts of the tongues of people who stutter to hypnotism to filling the patient’s mouth with pebbles and instructing him to scream at the ocean. While treatment has changed since King George’s time, stuttering is still widely misunderstood, and expert treatment is hard to find. Many speech therapists have limited training and experience in treating stuttering, and parents of children who stutter may get outdated advice from pediatricians and therapists.
At the USC center, speech pathologists work with patients (ranging from 3-year-olds to people in their 60s) on motor aspects of speech and address the psychological component of stuttering. Teens and adults are strongly recommended to go to a self-help support group to come to terms with stuttering.
Stuttering – or stammering, as the British call it – affects about 1 percent of the population around the world, including about 3 million Americans. It is mostly physiological and often genetic.
“It’s a relatively low-incidence disorder, so people who stutter don’t often meet others who stutter,” Adams said. “When you bring them together, wonderful things can happen.”
Approaches to treatment vary, but the most effective methods combine speech controls with the psychological components by addressing fear and avoidance.
“It involves regaining control over the speech mechanism and dealing with the psychological aspects,” Adams said. “Stuttering is significantly impacted by stress and anxiety. So many people who stutter as children get teased about their speech. They try harder, and that works against them. And the more fearful they become.”
The USC center also works with students on campus who stutter, particularly those close to graduation who are looking ahead to the working world. Job interviews can be most challenging for a person who stutters, he said.
“Stuttering and fear feed each other,” he said. “That’s how it becomes a problem. People can feel like they are set up for a life of struggling, but they don’t have to. My goal for patients is for them to be able to say what they want to say when they want to say it. Stuttering does not have to keep anyone from doing anything.”
That includes becoming the king of England.