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After 'King's Speech,' New Interest in Help for Stutterers

A young man at a University of Maryland speech clinic works with a therapist, April 2011
A young man at a University of Maryland speech clinic works with a therapist, April 2011

Many people who stutter cheered the recent attention given their condition when Hollywood bestowed four Academy Awards on The King's Speech, a movie about a real-life British king's struggle to overcome his severe stutter. Now new research is getting to the root causes of stuttering, and a group of young people are learning to cope with this speech disorder.

The year was 1926 and the Duchess of York was anxious to help her husband, the future King of England, overcome a severe speech impediment. She introduced him to a speech therapist named Lionel Logue.

The King's struggle to correct his stammer, or stutter, has resonated with many of the 68 million people worldwide who suffer from this neurological disorder. Listen to the feelings expressed by young patients at a University of Maryland speech therapy clinic.

"I was reading in class and they laughed at me," said Ruben Nyom, struggling to speak. "I felt so bad."

"It can really have a significant impact on your life," Michael Giannangeli said.

The young men in this group session include college students and one professor. They are intelligent and well-educated. Yet they admit they were nervous every time they had to introduce themselves or speak in public.

Stephen Ernst said he tries to ease the tension by letting his listeners know in advance he has a speech disorder.

"It definitely helps to take away that elephant in the room [the issue of stuttering] when you know that somebody knows that you stutter, and you know that you stutter but you just don't want to bring up that topic," he said.

Scientists at this recent Washington conference say that stuttering could be linked to the malfunction of certain brain cells associated with speech. Research also has shown that some stutterers process speech and language in a totally different part of the brain than those who speak normally.

Sixty percent of people who stutter have a family history of it. Stuttering also can be caused by developmental delays in early childhood, and it affects four times as many boys as girls.

While it is rare for adults to begin stuttering, it does affect some patients who have had strokes or traumatic brain injury.

Despite deepening scientific knowledge, Professor Nan Ratner of the University of Maryland said many people are still ignorant about the causes of stuttering. "Many people misunderstand and think stuttering is about emotional adjustment, your anxiety level, or something that scared you as a child."

The young men in this clinical session said they have gained self-confidence by sharing their experiences and are less intimidated when speaking to others.

Ben Goldstein spoke for all of them when he asked for a little patience from listeners. "Some people think it's helpful to cut in and finish it for us. We actually enjoy finishing our own sentences just like everybody else does."

If the real King George were alive today, he might just say ‘I agree.’