Stammering can make a person’s life hell. Many become more introverted, with their work and social lives being affected enormously. But help is at hand, writes Ellie O’Byrne
It’s like a nightmare. You’re standing in front of an expectant audience and you’re about to give a speech. You have carefully prepared and you know your subject well, but your heart is thudding and your face flushes as you open your mouth to begin. The words won’t come out.
For people who stammer, scenarios like this are dreaded, but a part of their daily struggle. Stammering is a common condition: A quarter of toddlers have a stammer (called normal non-fluency) during their development, with 4% of children retaining it for over six months and 1% continuing to stammer into adulthood. Four times as many men as women are affected by a stammer.
The external symptoms of stammering are clear, with first syllables of words being repeated and ‘blocks’ — where the word simply won’t come out — occurring in speech, but most of the worst effects are on the inner life of the stammerer. Anxiety, frustration, and social withdrawal are just some of the debilitating effects of the condition, as illustrated in the 2010 film The King’s Speech.
Professional golfer Brian Casey, 24, featured in part one of RTÉ’s new series, The Speech. Although the participants in the show all have different reasons for dreading public speaking, in Brian’s case, his stammer was the cause of his phobia.
The show sees Casey, coached by lawyer and public speaker Gerald Kean, overcome challenges that would be hair-raising to most of us, never mind someone with a stammer. Casey weathers a live radio interview on Newstalk and shouts a speech from the top of the Hill of Tara. He undergoes all of these challenges in preparation for the show’s finale, giving a speech at his golf club to an audience of hundreds.
As a sportsman, Casey is obviously used to setting himself challenges and rises to the occasion admirably, but the stress is visible on his face as he battles with fluency. Why did Brian choose to undergo such an ordeal?
“Being a professional golfer, you have to be used to interviews and speeches, so I wanted to learn to push the boundaries,” he says.
Was Brian initially drawn to the solitary challenge of golf because of his difficulties communicating as a child and teen?
“I’ve never thought about it like that, but that makes sense,” he says. “In golf, you can choose how much you want to communicate because you’re on your own a lot.”
Certainly, Brian believes that the stammer has been formative for him, saying it made him “much tougher”.
As with so many phenomena of the human brain, the causes of stammering are ill-understood. Some researchers favour a genetic element, with others focusing on potential psychological triggers. Rita Delaney is a clinical speech therapist, specialising in treating children, and a spokeswoman for the association of Independent Speech Therapists of Ireland.
Delaney says that parents should seek help for a stammering child as early as possible; even by seven, the stammer is firmly engrained and the chances of eliminating it are slim. However, much can still be done to alleviate it. With younger children, Delaney uses the Palin Parent-Child Interaction Programme, which originated in the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children in London.
Parents shouldn’t draw attention to the stammer by asking their child to slow down or by finishing their sentence for them; instead, the interaction programme teaches parents to slow down their own speech, maintain eye contact and pause at the beginning of sentences, she says. This practice-what-you-preach approach engages the tendency of small children to learn through mimicry without making them feel at fault.
Do parents cause their child’s stammer? Delaney says that, although many parents feel that they are somehow to blame, this is untrue
“The reason we ask them to make changes in their behaviour is to increase their child’s capacity for fluency,” she says. “You haven’t caused it, but if you interrupt a child or expect quick responses from them, you will increase the stammer.”
Those who reach adulthood with a stammer sometimes have their own coping strategies to disguise or alleviate their stammer. A vlog by UK hip hop artist Scroobius Pip demonstrates how he deals with his stammer: He taps out each syllable he’s speaking. Techniques such as these that engage the right brain, Delaney says, are effective.
“There may be more disassociation between the hemispheres of the brains of adult stammerers,” Delaney says. “They find some tasks, such as rubbing their tummy and patting their head simultaneously, easier than non-stammerers.”
Activities that activate the right hemisphere, such as singing or rhythm-making, or activities that improve the connectivity between hemispheres, increase fluency.
The McGuire Programme, run by stammerers for stammerers, was founded by David McGuire in 1994. Gareth Gates and Scottish rugby union captain Kelly Brown are graduates of the course. Brian Casey has found the McGuire programme very helpful. A three-day intensive course teaches costal breathing techniques and a lifelong support structure means you can call someone with experience of the condition any time you are having a bad day or need some support. Although the McGuire Programme may not eliminate a stammer, it is a holistic approach that aims to improve confidence.
Casey certainly found this to be the case.“You just have to be comfortable in your own skin,” he says. “It’s a part of you.”
An information night on the Mc Guire programme is being held at River Lee Hotel, Cork from 7.30-8.30pm tonight.
‘The tension would build up and make it worse’
Stephen O’Sullivan, from Glengarriff, Co Cork, suffered the emotional ill-effects of stammering as a self-conscious teen in secondary school.
“Answering questions or reading out loud in class was awful,” he says. “Then in college I dreaded being asked questions in class. Presentations were particularly bad.”
Despite the struggle, Stephen, now 24, graduated from CIT a Bachelor of Science and Agriculture.
Stephen’s stammering made him anxious in social settings. He dreaded transactions in shops and, cruelly but not uncommonly, found saying his name virtually impossible. He would try to get friends to order drinks for him in bars. “You could start telling a joke and reach the punchline and then you could just block. That’s very frustrating,” Stephen says.
The anxiety took its toll. “I’d be shaking, loads of things going through my mind about what people were thinking of me,” he says. “All that tension would build up and make the stammer even worse.”
Speech therapy provided temporary help but the effects of a session would wear off after a couple of days. He signed up for the McGuire Programme in February 2014.
The three-day course, which includes breathing exercises, phone contacts, and practising ordering in restaurants, ended with Stephen giving a speech in the middle of Grafton St.
Although not free of his stammer, Stephen now feels relaxed and less anxious about how others will perceive him.
“You learn that the main thing is that most people don’t actually mind how you get it out as long as they understand what you’re saying,” says Stephen. “Before I went on the programme Ii would have been delighted if someone finished a sentence for me but since the programme, I’d rather finish the sentence myself.”
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