This past March, seven children who stutter spoke to a crowd that included their parents and 50 graduate students in an effort to deepen others’ understanding of how stuttering affects their lives. They facilitated this “Increasing Stuttering Awareness” event with me and Northwestern University graduate students studying speech, language and learning. The event was held at the Northwestern University Center for Audiology, Speech, Language and Learning (NUCASLL).
The children led presentations on important aspects of stuttering and concluded with a Q&A session. The idea for the event came from one of them who asked a simple question, “Why don’t more people know about stuttering?” This inquisitive child and I decided to increase awareness of stuttering, starting with our NUCASLL community. The children collaborated with their student clinicians on what they felt was important to share regarding their own stuttering.
To prepare, the children created a speaking situation hierarchy to set themselves up for success. They all identified similar steps to take to achieve their ultimate goal of speaking in front of a large group:
- Practice speaking in speech sessions
- Practice in front of family
- Practice in front of two or three unfamiliar people
- Practice in front of a small group of unfamiliar people
- Practice in front of a large group of unfamiliar people
During sessions, the children determined which step(s) they felt ready to target. When working on these steps, the children also decided what communication skills they felt they needed to improve—eye contact, volume, expression—instead of focusing on fluent speech.
It was important for these children to learn that success is not measured by whether one stutters or not, but instead to shift their focus on becoming excellent communicators. We set these children up to feel comfortable sharing with their clinicians any negative thoughts and feelings regarding their stuttering. The children worked really hard to turn negative thoughts and feelings into positive ones and further focus on their communication abilities.
After more than a month of dedicated work on this event, the children were ready.
The event host, an 11-year-old boy, provided a warm welcome and explained the evening’s agenda. Afterward, a 15-year-old boy led everyone through a breathing exercise to teach the importance of breath support for speech.
He explained, “Sometimes, there are disruptions in my airflow that cause me to stutter. Learning about breathing and how to ease into my speech on my exhale is extremely important for me to produce more fluent speech.”
Next, a 10-year-old girl, who loves acting, performed a skit with her clinician about the “dos and don’ts” of stuttering. She used the skit to express how she doesn’t appreciate when others interrupt or finish what she says, especially when she “gets stuck on words.”
Then, a 7-year-old girl spoke about the five characteristics of a competent communicator: attentive, assertive, confident, effective, proactive. This 7-year-old said, “It is important that I make sure I work on being all of these [characteristics] because being a great communicator is far more important to me than stuttering.”
The last presentation—a true/false quiz of myths of stuttering—was led by two brothers, ages 7 and 9. The effortless support the brothers had for each other while speaking in front of a crowd of more than 50 people was awe-inspiring.
To wrap up the night, the children answered questions from the audience.
The children achieved their goals of competent communication while overcoming their fear of public speaking. One child felt it would be a good idea to “take our show on the road” and teach more people about stuttering. When given the proper tools of communication and strategies to address their social-emotional aspects of stuttering, these children far exceeded their own expectations.
Although our focus was targeting competent communication, specifically being confident (appropriate volume and eye contact), being effective (clear and organized), and assertive (saying what they wanted to say), the children stuttered minimally. There were tears in the crowd from parents and graduate students.
I felt the children’s greatest successes came from their own feedback about their presentations. Every single child gave feedback on their communication skills and not about if they stuttered. This attitude is how these children will continue to face challenging speaking situations and continue to be amazing communicators!
Special thanks to Kristin Chmela, June Campbell and all the Camp Shout Out SLPs for providing ongoing mentorship to Northwestern University clinical faculty and graduate students and for instilling the five characteristics of a competent communicator in us all.
Meaghan Moriarty, MA, CCC-SLP, is a lecturer and clinical instructor at Northwestern University. She specializes in feeding, fluency, and monolingual and bilingual pediatric speech and language delays and disorders. SHe is also an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Educaiton, 4, Flunecy and Flunecy DIsorders, and 11, Administration and Supervision. firstname.lastname@example.org