Stuttering: Past and present


Simone Lees


This opinion piece first appeared in the National Times on 24 January 2011.

Playing a character with an impediment of some kind has long been thought of as Oscar bait. Colin Firth’s depiction of King George VI’s journey to overcome his stutter in The King’s Speech looks to be going down that route after he snagged a Golden Globe for Best Actor.

Although the stammer may have sent critic’s thumbs a wagging, it was more Firth’s portrayal of the social and emotional implications of being a person who stutters that truly nailed the part.

Stuttering is an age-old disorder, evident in Egyptian hieroglyphics, noted by Greek scholars Aristotle and Plato in 300 BC and referred to in the Bible by both Moses and Isaiah.

Greek orator Demosthenes (4th century BC) was reported to have rehearsed his speeches with pebbles in his mouth, speaking above the roar of the sea to increase his stutter-free speech. The use of pebbles and over-articulation was also portrayed as a treatment for King George VI.

Other treatments have involved more extreme measures such as surgically removing parts of the tongue, using mechanical devices in the mouth to support oral movements and experimentation with shock therapy.

However, none of these barbaric and rather outdated methods combat the fear of being unable to express yourself or feeling as though you are always being negatively evaluated.

In fact, Speech pathologists see people who have immense fear of speaking as well as coexisting phobias and depression. Just contacting a speech pathology clinic can be immensely confronting.

Imagine not being confident that you’ll be able to say your name or ask a question. Imagine having the person on the other end of the line hanging up, thinking the call was a ‘prank’ or a wrong number. Stuttering can be an isolating disorder.  It is also complex and poorly understood. Unlike the movie suggests, stuttering is not caused by negative childhood experiences or psychological issues.

Stuttering is a neurological problem that causes a breakdown in the coordination and timing required for speech. Anxiety certainly makes stuttering worse, but it is not the cause.

While speech pathology is experiencing a raised profile thanks to this movie, contemporary techniques rarely involve jowl shaking vocal drills or repeating expletives.

Behavioural programs are successful for children who stutter yet stuttering becomes more resistant to this treatment with age. This means that adults who stutter can be stutter-free, but they may need to use an altered speech style to facilitate fluency.

Marilyn Monroe’s breathy voice is said to have less to do with her sultry qualities and more to do with concealing a stutter, while actress Emily Blunt attributes her stutter-free speech to taking on novel accents.

For adults, years of concealing their stuttering or living with anxiety can make asking for help difficult. Consequently, The Australian Stuttering Research Centre is currently investigating use of Skype-hosted treatments and web- based cognitive behaviour treatments specifically designed for adolescents and adults who stutter. Clinic based treatments are also readily available, offering a range of evidence based treatments.

At any age there is a way to deal with stuttering. As King George VI stated ‘I have a voice!’, he had only to master it.

Simone Lees is a senior speech pathologist at La Trobe University Communication Clinic