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The Democratic National Convention last month was filled with famous speakers. But the speech that may be remembered most came from a 13-year-old New Hampshire boy with an obvious stutter.
Describing himself as “just a regular kid,” Brayden Harrington spoke for two minutes about overcoming the shame so often attached to stuttering. He delivered each word — stuttered or not — with poise.
Millions of people across the world and thousands in the DMV stutter. What causes stuttering? What are some ways to approach living with a stutter? And how can a non-stutterer be a good listener?
Produced by Lauren Markoe
- Vivian Sisskin Speech Language Pathologist, and Clinical Professor, Department of Hearing & Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland
- Tracey Wallace Person Who Stutters and Audiologist for D.C. Public Schools
BRAYDEN HARRINGTONHi. My name is Brayden Harrington, and I'm 13 years old. And without Joe Biden, I wouldn't be talking to you today. About a few months ago, I met him in New Hampshire. He told me that we were members of the same club. We stutter. It was really amazing to hear that someone like me became Vice President.
KOJO NNAMDIThat was Brayden Harrington, whose two-minute speech at the Democratic National Convention last month was, for many, one of the most inspiring. Brayden, who's only 13, stuttered openly as he talked about meeting Joe Biden, who has been candid about his own stuttering. Across the U.S., three million people stutter. Locally, persons with stutters number in the thousands. We wanted to know more about them, and who are they? How does stuttering affect their lives, and what intervention can help people who stutter?
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us now is Tracey Wallace. Tracey Wallace is a person who stutters and an audiologist for D.C. Public Schools. Tracey Wallace, thank you for joining us.
TRACEY WALLACEThank you for having me.
NNAMDIA kid who stutters was given the national spotlight, you just heard it, at the Democratic National Convention. What did you think when you first heard Brayden Harrington address millions of people?
WALLACESo, let me just say, I had a smile from ear to ear. Just hearing somebody openly stutter on television, which is amazing, I was just happy that he was encouraged by VP Biden to just be himself and just explore, you know, the opportunity he has, as a person who stutters.
NNAMDITracey, tell us about your stuttering when you were a child. How did you deal with it, and did any adult in your life try to address it?
WALLACESo, I come from a family of men who stutter, so my dad stuttered. I have a male cousin who stutters and a nephew who stutters. So, I always kind of knew what stuttering was. The only female in the family who stuttered -- and my father, at one point when I was really struggling with speech, was just like, Tracey, you're going to have to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. He didn't really offer any advice, because he was a covert stutterer. So, he hid his stuttering the majority of his life. And so, for me, I guess, it was just a learned behavior, so I lived pretty much half of my life hiding my stutter.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Vivian Sisskin. She is a speech language pathologist and clinical professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland. Vivian Sisskin, thank you for joining us.
VIVIAN SISSKINThank you for the opportunity.
NNAMDIWell, first, a definition of a question. Is there a preferred term, person who stutters or stutterer?
SISSKINYeah, that's always evolving. Years ago, it was stutterer, then it became person who stutters. And now many in the stuttering community are moving toward stutterer again. I think that person-first language, person who stutters, started with the National Affordable Housing Act in 1989, puts the person first, and it's less handicapping. Identity-first language puts the identifying condition first. I think, ultimately, we want to go with person-centered language, and so it's an individual choice.
NNAMDIPlease help us understand the basics of stuttering. What is it, and what is it not?
SISSKINOkay. We used to say we didn't know, so I'm delighted that, with new research, we have a lot to say about what it is. Stuttering is neural developmental and genetic. And so that means it involves brain differences. And those differences involved networks that connect speech motor planning and hearing regions in the left side of the brain.
SISSKINIt starts in early childhood, and the onset is between two and three, and the form that stuttering takes changes overtime. So, the stuttering pattern can become more complex or struggled. And the individual maybe develop speaking avoidance due to feeling stigma. In terms of genetics, it's highly heritable. If you stutter, there's a 70 percent chance of having another family member who stutters.
SISSKINBut perhaps even more important to know is what it's not. It is not caused by physical or emotional trauma, parental behavior, nervousness or insecurity. And it's not learned from someone else. Sometimes, people who stutter may be anxious or nervous about speaking, but that's usually because they stutter. Anxiety or nervousness does not cause it.
NNAMDIDoes gender play a role? Is it mostly children?
SISSKINYeah, it is -- well, there's about 5 to 10 percent of children worldwide who stutter. But if you look at the numbers in adulthood, it's only about 1 percent. So, we know that 60 to 80 percent of children who start to stutter in early childhood will recover on their own. We call that sometimes spontaneous recovery. And there are some sex differences, as well. So, for example, near onset, the ratio of boys to girls is about two-to-one, but in adulthood, it's about four-or-five to one. So, we know that the boys are persisting into adulthood more than girls.
SISSKINAnd people ask, you know, why is it that girls are more likely to resolve on their own? And a lot of this work comes out of the Produce Veteran Project, Anne Smith, Christine Weber, Bridget Walsh, now, at Michigan. These are people who have done a lot of work on young children at age about four or five. And they find that girls who stutter had more mature speech motor systems than the boys who stuttered at that age. So, perhaps the brains of the females who begin to stutter are better -- in a better position to compensate for these differences in brain activity.
NNAMDIDoes stuttering naturally improve with age?
SISSKINSometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. So, it's always evolving. People begin to develop escape and avoidance behaviors, which add to the struggle in their speech, because they're learning ways to avoid stuttering to suppress it. Others change their attitudes about stuttering as they get older, and they become more accepting, and therefore stutter less. So, it's highly individual how that evolves overtime.
NNAMDITracey Wallace, well into adulthood, you tried to hide it, is my understanding, your stutter. Can you tell us about some of the lengths you went to to make sure you remained a secret stutterer?
WALLACERight, right. So, I always considered myself a false fluent speaker. So, to the world, they thought I was a fluent speaker, and I was always in deep thought and thinking about things, when actually I was rearranging words and trying to pause so I could, you know, sound more fluent. And so, people always asked me, how did you do that?
WALLACEAnd I can give you an example. If I was out at dinner with a few friends and the waiter or waitress was there asking for our food order, I may have ordered steak, because steak was easy to say. But, in actuality, I really wanted the lasagna. But if I ordered lasagna, it would've sounded like la-la-la-la-la-lasagna, and then the cat would've been out of the bag. So, here I was ordering food that either I didn't like or didn't want, just to avoid the moment of stuttering.
NNAMDIYou say that even some people who were very, very close to you were not aware of your stuttering. Would that include your husband?
WALLACESo, that did. I was married for four years, and my husband had no idea that I stuttered. And, to me, I was kind of proud of that, because I figured I was really good at hiding it. But when it all came crashing down for me, you know, he didn't know what was going on. Unfortunately, he thought I was having a nervous breakdown, but the reality of that was, I was just coming to terms with my stuttering and realizing that I couldn't live my life hiding it anymore. It was too burdensome on my spirit, on my emotional health, on my mental health. And I just couldn't do it, but I couldn’t explain it to him, because I stuttering. I was blocking. I couldn’t talk.
SISSKINVivian Sisskin, Tracey was able to hide her stutter and present herself as a fluent speaker. What are coping mechanisms for those who can't hide it?
SISSKINYeah, a lot of people, even if they can't hide it, they make a large effort to hide it. And that's probably one of the commonalities among all people who stutter, is that unless they've had therapy where they begin to accept it. So, the desire to hide and conceal identity as a person who stutters and the actual stuttering itself is prevalent among people who stutter. And they will find ways to escape.
SISSKINSo, Tracey was able to appear as fluent, to pass as fluent. That's the covert profile, but others may substitute words, change their words. They may talk around a word. They may throw in words that are not necessary, or they may just cut things short and say only what they have to say, never saying what they want, when they want.
NNAMDITracey, you compare, in some respects, your experience to those of LGBTQ people. Can you explain?
WALLACEYou know, early on, I had friends who didn't come out to me as being gay. And I always kind of thought back to, you know, wow, they lived their lives for so long in high school and through adulthood living behind a mask and not really being true to themselves and, you know, who they are. And not really allowing the world to know who they really are.
WALLACEAnd so, I kind of always viewed myself as this person who started to live behind this mask of fluency and not really being myself and not knowing, you know, what gifts I may have to share with another person who stutters to help them along their journey. So, it's just been incredibly freeing to just be who you are and to embrace who you are and to just love on who you are. It's not an easy path to take but it is definitely the path that I chose, and I'm so glad I did. And I wish I had chosen it earlier in my life, but I wasn't ready.
NNAMDIOnce you decided that you would not spend the rest of your life trying to hide your stutter, how did you figure out how to live as someone who obviously stutters?
WALLACEIt was extremely difficult. I mean, learning to tolerate my own stutter, just feeling all the emotions that surrounded it, the hatred toward -- I mean, the hatred towards it. I always considered my stutter as my demon, and just working through those feelings and those thoughts and those actions and really becoming an expert on my own stutter. And understanding all of the things that I was doing to perpetuate my stutter really helped me to just be smarter on it.
WALLACEAnd then, most importantly, surrounding myself with people who stuttered, who were just like me. And so, I got involved with an organization called the National Stuttering Association, where I had this entire family of people who stuttered. My stamily, as I call it. Not just my family, but my stuttering family. And they carry me through when I can’t carry myself.
NNAMDIVivian Sisskin, you take a particular approach to stuttering with your clients, which is called avoidance reduction therapy. What does that involve?
SISSKINYeah, that involves -- instead of adding on strategies or tools or techniques to become more fluent, it involves removing the things that result in struggle. So, if you've learned behaviors that lead to tension or distress or distracting movements, we begin to reduce those. If you've learned attitudes or feelings or emotions or thoughts about what other people think around you, you begin to become more neutral to those thoughts and feelings.
SISSKINAnd so, by reducing struggle, we allow the dysfluency to be there. Because if we try to suppress all dysfluency, the person would start stuttering again. Because the harder you try not to stutter, believe it or not, the more you stutter. So, what we're trying to do is reduce struggle, control and avoidance behaviors to allow somebody to have comfortable, confident, forward-moving dysfluency that allows them to be joyful in communication.
NNAMDIHere's Lorrain in Washington, D.C. Lorraine, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LORRAINYes. I'm a lifelong stutterer. I'm 69, and I started when I was in elementary school. And the incident that really capped it, brought it to my awareness, we had an auditorium. And our class is -- each individual had to stand up in front of the class on the stage and recite a poem. And you had to give your name. And I couldn't get the L of Lorrain out. And my teacher said, you don't even know your name, and the kids started laughing. I finally got through it, and then my mother took me to speech pathologists, which I hated, so I stopped going there. But just -- I guess, over the years, I just sort of coped with it.
LORRAINAnd I teach so I do a lot of talking and lecturing, but I use a lot of the avoidance tactics that was talked about, like changing my words. And sometimes if a word is coming up that I know that I'm going to stutter over, I just kind of think about it and say, okay, I'm going to power through this word and hopefully I won't stutter. But again, sometimes I'll just use another word to substitute for it. I don't feel uncomfortable. I'm not afraid to speak. It's just been such a part of my life that I don't even pay that much attention to it as an issue or a problem.
NNAMDITwo questions for you, Vivian Sisskin, that I think are relevant to Lorrain. You say that one common trait among stutterers is that they often get stuck on their own names, which is what exactly happened to Lorrain as a child. Do we know why this is the case?
SISSKINYeah, it's nothing about the name. In fact, if you try to change your name and say you're somebody else, which many people who stutter often do, they begin to stutter on their new name or their new phone number or their new address. It's because it's important to you. And when something is very important to you, you want to say it fluently. When someone says, hi, I'm so-and-so. Who are you? If you stutter on your name, at that point, you're going to get exactly what Lorrain got: Don't you know your name?
SISSKINThat's something that people who stutter talk about a lot. So, a lot of it is conditioned responses. If we're afraid of stuttering on our name, we will stutter more often on our name. And that includes a lot of other kinds of things that are related to what we call our fear hierarchy, things that are high-fear because you anticipate stuttering on them. And when you anticipate stuttering on something, you likely do.
NNAMDIThere was a point at which, Tracey, it is my understanding you used to arbitrarily change your phone number.
WALLACE(laugh) Who told you that? Right. So...
WALLACESo, just a quick, quick, quick story. So, I could never say the number five, and it was in my phone number and my address, it was everywhere. And so, I would go to the dry cleaner and the lady would, you know, always ask me, what's your phone number? And there'd be people in line behind me and I couldn't say my real phone number so I would just say 301-680-2938. I don't know whose phone number that was, but my phone number was 301-255-3565.
WALLACEAnd so, again, just that moment of avoiding, I thought I had won, you know. I didn't stutter, great. You know, nobody saw me, but what I was doing, in retrospect, was really telling myself confirming that I couldn't say the number five. And so therefore every time I had to say the number five, I would have this panic, and I would avoid it.
NNAMDIHere is Carnice in Washington, D.C. Carnice, your turn.
CARNICEHi, Kojo. I'm so happy being in the show, and this topic was right on point for me. So, I actually took the effort call in, because I'm a lifelong stutterer, too. And my experience has been, well, when I was in primary school, second or third grade, they started to notice that I started stuttering. My mom stutters, as well. So, I had -- and this school was down south, we were a military family, so we were down south in the Midwest. And they had speech pathologists onsite. Can you imagine the resources of a school that had that? But they did.
CARNICEAnd I was taken out of class in second and third grade a couple times a week, and I had to go to speech pathology therapy. And this woman, I hated it, (laugh) but I'm so grateful. I hated it. I would go in there, and the first thing the woman would do was have me identify the different types of stuttering I was doing, because they're not all the same, you know. Sometimes it would be the repeating of the d-d-d-d-d-d or I would elongate a word. You know, I couldn't get my airflow out and I would draw it out, as we've heard. Or I would just struggle like, you know, the avoidance, because you just can't get the word out at all. People see you struggling to say something, but nothing's coming out.
CARNICEAnd she had me identify all of the different types of stuttering. And I had to do these exercises that I felt were ridiculous, but they helped even out my airflow towards the types of stuttering I could be doing, or help me identify what was coming and help me relax. So, that's been my experience. Like, my mom, we -- I still stutter. I mean, it can happen but I'm, like, an attorney. I'm on a stage. I have a radio show. I have a modest radio show, Kojo. I'm coming along. (laugh)
CARNICEBut, you know, so I still kind of deal with it and I don't even -- you know, it's me and if it comes out, I'm cool with it. You know, like it's me. You know, it's nothing for me to be ashamed of, but I did get a lot of training. See, it just happened for you guys live. But I did receive a lot of training on how to manage it.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, and good luck to you in your radio career, Carnice. Vivian Sisskin, you have another client who's very familiar to many of our listeners. They may not realize, though, that Dr. Leana Wen, who has been giving us sound medical advice since the pandemic began, is also a person who stutters.
NNAMDIDr. Wen wrote in the Washington Post that she cried as Brayden Harrington spoke at the Democratic National Convention because she never imagined she would see someone stutter openly and without shame in front of an audience of millions. Vivian Sisskin, is there a watershed moment for people who stutter? Do you expect that more people will get or take the opportunity to acknowledge their stutter?
SISSKINYeah, and that's a very good point. And it's wonderful that Leana is so open, because it did take her, to get to a point where she felt that she needed some help before she actually got some. And that happens for a lot of people. They go through their lives avoiding and doing the best they can. And so, very often, we find that people may lose a job or not get promoted or want to make a change in their life, or sometimes they just get so tired and exhausted from hiding.
SISSKINAnd I think that, you know, some of the callers calling in saying they went to speech therapy and they couldn’t stand it. Sometimes you have to ask the right kinds of questions. Instead of trying to fix the stutter or deal with the over pattern of stuttering, talk to the kids about how they feel about it. So many children say that they went through speech therapy when they were young, and no one even talked about their feelings. So, this can be very helpful in getting people to turn around, the way Leana did and the way Tracey did.
NNAMDITracey, as a black woman, do you suspect that people of color who stutter are less likely to get the sort of intervention that helped you?
WALLACEI really don't know. I know I didn't get any support at school. The same thing with one of the callers. I think one of my teachers noticed that I was having some problems with fluency and called the school SLP. But I am grateful now for organizations like the National Stuttering Association, the NSA, which is the largest self-help group for people who stutter.
WALLACEAnd I do share that resource with students in DCPS, and anybody that I meet on the street who stutters, I’ll say, hey, there's an organization our here for people who stutter and for people who love people who stutter. And there's people just like you and there's, like, this one place where you can just be who you are and not worry about how it's received when you're talking.
NNAMDIWe heard from Say DC, a group that offers free support for kids 5 to 18 who stutter and their families. Say DC invites people to go to say.org/dc or @sayorgdc on Instagram. Finally, for you, Vivian Sisskin, what's the difference between stuttering and stammering?
SISSKINIt depends upon where you live. (laugh) If you're in the United States, we generally say stuttering. If you're in United Kingdom and some other countries around the world...
NNAMDIThey say stammering.
SISSKINSo, it's really just the same thing.
NNAMDIVivian Sisskin is a speech language pathologist and clinical professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences at the University of Maryland. Tracey Wallace is a person who stutters, and audiologist for DC Public Schools. Thank you both for joining us. This segment about stuttering was produced by Lauren Markoe. And our conversation about athletes protesting racial injustice was produced by Richard Cunningham.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, what's the future of concerts and live music in the Washington region? We take a look at how the pandemic has impacted local music venues and what they're doing to stay afloat. Plus, how have the past six months affected local up-and-coming musicians? We hear from rapper, actor, poet and playwright Dior Ashley Brown on what the pandemic and the protests have meant for her music and her livelihood. That all starts tomorrow, at noon.
NNAMDII'd like to take a moment to embarrass one of our producers who really hates anyone to make a fuss over his birthday. It would be really cruel of me to wish Kurt Gardinier a happy birthday over the air, so I won't do that. I'll just say, thank you, Kurt, for being such an invaluable member of our team, a team which loves to celebrate birthdays and plans to celebrate yours whether you let them or not, because you know that's how they roll. Thank you all for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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