Chapter 8: Tightrope of Language

Setting:  University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana,   January 2009, Dr. Loucks’s  Speech and Hearing Lab

Dr. Loucks = Professor in the Neurophysiology of Stuttering at the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences


Ah!  I knew it would be mentioned- the SpeechEasy device brought to the market by the Janus Development Group in 2001 which was advertised as a miracle fix for stutterers.  Katherine knew the principle behind it:  No one stutters when they speak in unison.  She talks about remembering the leaflets set around her home growing up.  She looked at them, but they were just another reminder to her that she was failing.  She knew about delayed auditory feedback and re-creating the choral effect in her brain, and also knew these little hearing aid looking devices could cost between $4-5,000!

But, she trusted Dr. Loucks and learned “What we see as stuttering is really a reaction; it is what our bodies are doing in response to something internal.”  Dr. Loucks continues to talk about stuttering being different then all the other speech disorders because it “seems to arise after people have already formed what they intend to say.  The brain knows what it wants to say, but can’t carry it through.”  Katherine liked his theory and looking at her stuttering as more of a motor glitch which made it somehow less frightening and less of a personal failing on her part.  She was impressed but not convinced this would be the “miracle cure” she was looking for.  Will the effect wear off soon?  Good question!

Dr. Loucks also but on the earpiece which first annoyed Katherine.  I mean, we know HE is fluent…whaterver!  Then she hears his voice start to block as he says his name.  He takes off the earpiece and warmly tells her, “You see, Katherine we all walk on a tightrope.” (musical interlude…hence the title of Chapter 8).  She says that she can see that all of us are standing together as we teeter on the edge of fluency and dysfluency.  We all have individual variations.  Some have a wide beam to walk on when circumstances are altered (DAF), and some of us “wobble more” (not the dance I assume).

She now takes us back to the Boston area in October 2008 where she planned to get to her family’s house on Cape Cod to plan the next year of her life.  She said her dad referred to it as “Our place of Magic.”  Now both of her parents were living there also.

She started reaching out to researchers and experts in the field, but was too afraid to contact other stutterers quite yet.  She wanted to know what CAUSED 1% of the world to stutter and was on a mission to meet stutterers who were role models- smart, brave, and courageous.  She wanted to find the TRUTH behind stuttering.

So, she gave herself 10 months to travel across the US and do more than 100 interviews and planned for her research to end with the National Stuttering Association’s (NSA) annual conference in July.

She talk about missing England and her friends, but that her journey was worth it.  She also talked about the history of stuttering and treatment, anywhere from primitive hieroglyphs, to Moses in the Bible, and Dr. Freud.  The treatments had ranged from using an iron to sear lips, cutting holes in one’s skull, electric shock treatment, and a “magic fork”! ( I thought about the Little Mermaid movie).  During more modern research attempts, she came to the idea that stuttering is an enigmatic condition with multiple causes.

She then talked with Dr. Maguire in California whom by using PET imaging came to an interesting theory about why more boys stutter than girls.  He said that women and can lateralize the right hemisphere better than men, so women could often develop a right hemisphere compensation for the left hemisphere which is dominant in speech

production.  He also talked about the excessive amounts of dopamine in people who stutter, its similarities to Tourette’s Syndrome treatment, and medicines that were dopamine antagonists.

Note: There is no FDA approved drug for stuttering.

She then talked to Dr. Drayna and about the role hereditary plays and stuttering being a possible hereditary condition.  She was relieved to learn stuttering was not anyone’s fault.  She also discussed her thoughts about possibly having children in her future that stutter.  Would they go through the same pain and embarrassment as she has? Would they blame her?

She also went outside traditional speech therapies and meds and talked about treatments such as vitamins and hypnosis.  She learned from a journalist in North Carolina that was gay and compared the two and feelings of struggle for acceptance (homosexuality and stuttering).  “We don’t need to be changed.  We need a change in attitude rather than a change in our speech.” This brought up two ideas for her: voluntary stuttering and self-advertising oneself as someone who stutters from the therapy world.  She brought up Joseph Sheehan’s (SLP) approach of acceptance, education, and tolerance of dysfluent speech.  Although some people would introduce themselves as a person who stutters, or yell it on the subway, or even wear a t-shirt, she preferred the voluntary stuttering to gain control of her speech and lessen the fear of stuttering.  She talks about going to Starbuck’s and stuttering on purpose.  Although it was uncomfortable, she was determined to do it, even when a cashier tried to offer her a piece of paper and pen to make it “easier” for her.

Katherine’s attitude was changing.  It was more of a game now in which she had control of her voice therefore becoming free of the fear.  She didn’t find a cure, but a sense of peace and control instead of her previous feelings of failure.

The chapter ends with her saying, “I am not going to be fluent.  Who is?”

Thoughts to consider:

1.  Have you ever worked with a person who stutters who has used a device such as the SpeechEasy?  Did it work?

2. Have you ever had a feeling of guilt or worry about something you may pass on to your children or future children?  This is true with many genetic conditions or ones thought to be connected to heredity.

3. Do you use voluntary stuttering as a therapy technique with your students? I personally find it a confusing concept for younger kids that I see at the elementary level now.  The thought of stuttering more to stutter less is confusing.  I think the idea of sometimes stuttering on purpose and being open and honest about your dysfluncy does seem to lessen the fear and anxiety that you MAY stutter.

Kim Raho, SLP at Norton Elementary


9 thoughts on “Chapter 8: Tightrope of Language

  1. Erica Hayes says:

    I am also interested to hear if anyone has taught voluntary stuttering. I was not really familiar with this as a technique. I found it interesting that was the technique she felt the most comfortable with and that it gave her that sense of control over her speech.

    • Amanda Piekarski says:

      I have read about voluntary stuttering before when researching stuttering modification techniques. I believe it has to do with desensitization. I could see this being more beneficial for our older students, less with younger students who are not as sensitive to stuttering yet.
      I have used it some as practicing other methods- cancelations, easy onsets, etc. More specifically as a way to practice rather than something to add to everyday speech.

  2. Katie Cohen says:

    Kim, I really like your take on this chapter!
    In regards to voluntary stuttering: I have never attempted to teach my students to voluntarily stutter – I work with Elementary age students also – however, they do enjoy when I voluntarily stutter, they suggest a strategy for me to use, I repeat my utterance using the strategy, then discussing. They like to “be the teacher” for a change.

  3. Kimberly A. Raho says:

    Thanks! It’s that whole battle of stuttering modification vs fluency shaping! I use a little of both depending on the student. Age is a big deal with this one!

  4. Chelsea says:

    I have started teaching voluntary stuttering with my ‘only’ stuttering student. She is an advanced 4th grader, and VERY outgoing. She does get frustrated, and is able to identify situations where she may stutter more. Her favorite fluency enhancing behavior is taking a full breath prior to beginning speaking. We alternate between practicing OTHER strategies (that require more attention and thought), and doing purposeful stuttering. We talk about how we can choose to stutter, which may make other stuttering events ‘easier.’

    Katherine’s journey to how she is going to address her stuttering (not acknowledge it, focus on using strategies ALL day long for every utterance, advocate/broadcasting her stuttering, purposeful stuttering) has been a LONG journey.

    I feel like I have been on a long journey as well, learning how to provide effective/thoughtful intervention for my students with fluency disorders.

  5. Rachel Lacap says:

    I have never had a student that used the Speech Easy device, however, I do know that one of our JCPS SLPs worked with it a lot when she was an outpatient SLP. Christy Chesnut might be able to give more insight into that question.

    I also find that it is difficult to teach voluntary stuttering to elementary aged children, and some of my over involved parents don’t appreciate it when I mention that we will be practicing “stuttering” in order to “stutter” less-haha. If I worked at the middle/high level, however, I would definitely be using this in my therapy.

  6. Candra Grether says:

    I agree with Amanda in that I typically use voluntary stuttering in therapy as a way to practice fluency strategies, not as a strategy itself. This part of the chapter has encouraged me to do some additional research on using voluntary stuttering as an actual strategy to target control and desensitization. Little insights like this are why I love these book studies!

    As for persons who stutter being open and honest about their stuttering (that affective component of stuttering therapy), I recently had a discussion with one of my high school seniors about this. This is a student who is making a lot of progress towards self-acceptance and reported being honest about their speech at the beginning of their last job interview. Proud SLP moment! Katherine’s journey has made me think so much about my current older students who stutter.

  7. Kathy McKenzie-Hensley says:

    I “inherited” a young man from Kim Raho, actually, during my days at Shawnee. When I started working with him, I thought, “Why am I working with this kid? He barely stutters!” I’m actually more dysfluent than him. Then, it happened. Just like a light switch one day. He could not get a fluent utterance out of his mouth. It was THE worst I have ever witnessed! He knew every strategy and had successfully implemented them in the past, but now, nothing was working. His parents were able to early withdraw money from a trust and purchase a delayed auditory feedback device. He had weekly sessions via phone with an SLP in New York (if memory serves me). And, it worked. It helped get him back to a point where he could actually implement the strategies that had worked for him for so long. He didn’t use it constantly, but practiced for several hours a day to give him a taste of fluency, which enabled him to get back to the point he was before.

  8. Lindsay Manis says:

    I have never utilized the voluntary stuttering as a strategy, but more as a tool with my older pre-school students. As far as the speech easy device goes, I have not yet seen a student in JCPS with one, but I did have a “visiting professor” when I was in undergrad that helped fill in for our fluency teacher and he definitely had good and bad days with it. He was the first adult I ever heard talk about stuttering so honestly. As a young student, I do not think I appreciated him in the moment, but as I have encountered adults and now students in JCPS who stutter, I think of him often. My husband is friends with a man who is a severe stutterer and I asked him about the speech easy device pretty much right off the jump ( I was still in school at the time) and he said he never had real success with it.

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