This is ASHA Voices. I’m J.D. Gray.On today’s episode, we’re looking towards next month’s ASHA Convention in Orlando.
We’ll speak with Taro Alexander, who will receive the Annie Glenn Award at convention for his work at the non-profit, the Stuttering Association for the Young, or SAY. We discuss his experience with loneliness as a young person with a stutter, and how he came to start SAY. The group provides a community to a new generation who have stutters.
TARO: I didn’t meet anyone else who stutters until I was 26 years old. It’s a really long time to grow up feeling that I’m the only one who had this challenge. It’s a really long time to grow up feeling alone. And when I was a kid, all I wanted, was this. I wanted to be around other people who knew what it felt like to feel like I did.
(Slowly start to fade under: ES_Forest Pond With Stars – Polar Nights)
That’s a clip of Taro speaking to the attendees of Camp SAY in the film My Beautiful Stutter. Taro will be the recipient of the 2019 Annie Glenn Award at ASHA Convention for his work to improve the lives of those with communication disorders.
Later in the program, we’ll hear from two researchers. We’ll discuss what they discovered, and what surprised them, when they looked at MRIs of beatboxers.
Why does beatboxing have all of these sounds that speech doesn’t have? Why doesn’t speech have all of these beatboxing sounds? If the human mouth can do these things, why don’t we all the time? Why don’t these sounds appear in language?
This is ASHA Voices, I’m J.D. GRAY.
(Music – ES_Typewriter Song)
GRAY: Support for this episode of ASHA Voices is brought to you by the Office of Multicultural Affairs at ASHA. Celebrating 50 years of increasing diversity and cultural competence.
Support for ASHA Voices also comes from the ASHA Continuing Education Registry. You can earn ASHA Continuing Education Units by joining the ASHA C-E Registry, and track your progress with your digital C-E Registry Transcript. Learn more at asha-dot-org-slash-C-E
GRAY: If you see our next guest at ASHA Convention, say congratulations. Taro Alexander will receive the 2019 Annie Glenn Award. Named for John Glenn’s wife, who was an advocate for speech-language and communications issues, the Annie Award is presented to people creating positive change in the lives of those with communication disorders.
Taro Alexander certainly exemplifies the award’s values in his work with people who stutter. Taro is the founder of SAY, The Stuttering Association for the Young. The nonprofit association provides treatment and resources to children who stutter. Taro and his work are featured in the documentary film My Beautiful Stutter. And recently, SAY founded SAY DC in Taro’s hometown. We’ll talk about what it’s like for Taro, as a person who stutters, to provide these services where he grew up.
Taro Alexander, first of all congratulations, and welcome to ASHA Voices.
J.D. GRAY: To begin, I was hoping you could help us get a better understanding of SAY by telling us the story of someone whose life benefited from your program.
TARO ALEXANDER: going to talk about myself for a second, which is not usually what I like to do. Growing up as a child who stutters in Washington, DC, I didn’t meet anyone else who stutters until I was 26 years old. I mean, just hearing you SAY that intro, this is all pretty wild to me. It brought me back, just imagining what five year old, seven year old, 10 year old, 15 year old Taro must’ve been thinking and feeling. It’s wild to now all these years later be receiving this really prestigious honor.
You know, I grew up hating my stutter and feeling such shame.
I also did it, I don’t even think I realized this at the time, but I did it as a way to heal myself and to heal my own wounds, and to provide something for these kids that I didn’t have as a child. My life has been flipped upside down, over and over again by this experience. I am a completely different person now in 2019, than I was in 2001 when I had the idea for SAY. And so 2019, you know, I’m living my most courageous life every day, trying to be a good role model to my three children that stuttering or any kind of difference shouldn’t hold you back. I tip my hat, I raise my glass of water to these kids
GRAY: What was it like when you realized you were someone who stutters?
ALEXANDER: You know what’s interesting about that question is my first memory of stuttering is when I was 11 years old. I totally believe my parents when they say that I started stuttering around five, but I don’t actually have any clear memories of stuttering until I was 11 years old.
The thing about stuttering that’s really interesting is, and I’m not a speech language pathologist, I’m not a researcher. But in my experience, I have found something that works 100% of the time, and that’s not talking. If you don’t talk, you don’t stutter.
And so, I did a lot of that. I did a lot of not talking and now that I’m immersed in the stuttering community and have been for 18 years, I don’t think that choice is uncommon. There’s a lot of kids who grow up stuttering who get very good at hiding, not talking in class, not talking in school.
GRAY: Did you use specific techniques to avoid talking?
ALEXANDER: Yeah. I mean, I just didn’t talk a lot and so a lot of people thought that I was just really shy. Looking back, I just feel sad about it, that I was living a life that was just consumed by fear and consumed by getting caught from this thing that no one else really around me knew about or really even cared about. If I could get through the day and nobody would call me out or give me a weird look, that day was a success, regardless of anything else that happened.
GRAY: Wow, that sounds really difficult, extremely difficult.
ALEXANDER: Yeah, and lonely. You start your project and pretty quickly in my mind it was fact, I’m the only person in the world who talks like this. That’s a pretty big thing for a kid to wrap their head around and can feel very … I just felt so isolated.
GRAY: Were there any specific moments or times that it stood out to you or that stand out to you?
ALEXANDER: My mom is an awesome person. She’s a lot of fun and a really cool person, and she’s great. She’s my mom. I love her. I don’t remember why she came to the school, but she came to the school for some event and like I said, she’s pretty cool. And so, the next day there was a kid who was talking to me. And we were having a conversation and he said, “Yeah, I got a chance to meet your mom last night. She’s so cool. Can you remind me of her name?” I usually stutter when I say my mom’s name, and so I remember doing this whole ridiculous, very over the top- I don’t know- this thing where I just pretended to forget my mother’s name. That I would rather this kid think that I was anything, but not hear me stutter.
ALEXANDER: So, I did. I just put my hands on my head and I was like, “has this ever happened to you? I can’t remember my mother’s name, that’s so weird. I wonder if I’m not feeling well. This is crazy.” I just mumbled to myself and eventually just walked away from this kid, and avoided this kid throughout my high school years because if he sees me again, what is he going to say, “Hey, did you remember your mother’s name?” It’s just a lot of things like that again, trying to avoid it, working very, very hard to avoid it.
In terms of the lonely times or the loneliest times, or the darkest times, I remember in high school at night before going to bed just that loneliness feeling overwhelming me. I used to draw a picture of a person inside of a cage with a little thought bubble with the word lonely, that that’s what the person who was me was saying. I would just write the word loneliness on a sheet of paper and tape it up to my wall. I mean, it was a consuming feeling for a long stretch in my life.
GRAY: I know you went to Duke Ellington High School. For those that don’t know, it’s in Washington, DC, and they focus on performing arts there. I’m wondering, did you find this sense of community in the world of performing arts?
ALEXANDER: Yeah, I am a very, very proud Duke Ellington alum. What’s wild about those years, because there were many things happening at the same time. Those four years at Duke Ellington were some of the happiest four years of my life. I had great friends there, I loved performing. That was happening and from the outside, it sure looked like I was a very happy person.
At the same time, I was working very hard to not let anyone at Ellington figure out that I was a person who’s stuttered. As close as I was with people, there was still a wall up where I was always on guard and always working hard to hide my stutter.
GRAY: Were you enjoying performance?
ALEXANDER: Oh, I loved to perform. I grew up in an arts family. My dad, he was the founder of a nonprofit in Washington, DC called The Living Stage Theatre Company, so I grew up around the arts. Performing for me was always second nature. It’s just what I did and when I was on stage, I felt very at home. I felt more at home actually on stage than offstage.
when I would perform in high school and get up on stage, I wouldn’t stutter. The stutter would just magically go away, and I do think that that was a piece to why I liked performing at the time and I felt successful at Ellington. It was a way, because I was very insecure, and so it was a way for me to show my friends what I could do. As soon as I would step offstage, my stutter would be there to say hello, and shake my hand and say, “Oh yeah, I’m still here.”
GRAY: We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Taro ALEXANDER. He’ll tell us about the founding and evolution of the Stuttering Association for the Young and the affect it had on his life. This is ASHA Voices.
(Music: ES_Weightless Walk – Dew Of Light.wav)
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(Music: ES_Forest Pond With Stars – Polar Nights)
After high school, Taro says he continued acting in New York and with touring companies, and in Colorado. He met other people who stutter, and he was introduced to organizations for people who stutter. Eventually, Taro met his wife, and they got married. Taro says his wife helped him take down the wall he built around his stutter. One day, later, Taro said he began thinking about the impact he wanted to have on the world, and soon after that, he founded SAY.
(Music Up, then fades out)
ALEXANDER: When I founded SAY in 2001, I was hoping to create an environment where young people who stutter could feel good about who they are, where young people who stutter could be in an environment where they feel free to be themselves fully. I wanted to create an environment where young people who stutter could make friends with each other and find a sense of community, a sense of belonging. I wanted to create a place where young people who stutter could tell the stories that they want to tell and do it in their own time, in their own voice without the fear of being ridiculed, and be in a place where they have as much time as they need to speak, where they know they’ll be valued and validated and honored. And, I wanted to create a place that was super fun.
GRAY: I know it’s evolved since it began, but tell us a little bit about that evolution. What were some of the services you provided early on and the resources that you had?
ALEXANDER: SAY really started as a performing arts program, where young people would write and perform in their own plays, and write their own songs and poetry and dances. 18 years later, that is still happening 100%. The core of who we are and why we started hasn’t changed at all. We’ve grown a lot and we’ve added a lot to that, but the performing arts piece of how this started, that is still going very strong every weekend in New York City year-round and pretty soon every weekend in Washington, DC
ALEXANDER: We used to travel a lot and we would perform at a lot of national stuttering conferences, both in the United States and abroad. One of the pieces of feedback we would hear often when we would travel both from kids who stutter and their parents and speech language pathologists, “This is great, is there anything like this near me. This is great. I don’t live in New York City, how can I be involved?” After many years of this, I started to think about, what would be the best way to bring young people who stutter from around the country, around the world to one place? That’s where the idea for Camp SAY came from.
GRAY: There’s water, there’s rock climbing, like what you might picture if you picture a summer camp. But, everyone there is a young person with a stutter.
ALEXANDER: Camp SAY is now a two week overnight camp in the beautiful mountains of Pennsylvania in the Poconos. Right now we have about 160 to 170 campers every summer. The idea for Camp SAY came from, how do we meet this very clear need? The first year, and that was 2008 of Camp SAY was 27 campers. I had no idea what it would grow into. I had no idea that Camp SAY would become this really large, thriving community that is an incredible support system year round. Even though camp is two weeks, we are a family and we are in touch with the families and most importantly, the campers are in touch with each other. That idea, that wish or dream in 2001 of kids would meet each other and create lifelong friendships, that is real. I mean, that is just the truth.
GRAY: I also understand that SAY provides speech language treatment. Could you talk a little bit about the roles of SLPs with SAY as it’s evolved?
ALEXANDER: When I had the idea to start SAY in 2001, one of the things that I realized that a friend of mine told me, “You’re going to have to reach out to speech pathologist and tell them about this, because that’s how you’re going to get the word out.”
I went through The Yellow Pages and called every single speech language pathologist in the New York City area. For all of you speech therapists that are listening, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you do, and for the incredible kind heartedness of you and of your profession.
And I tell you, every phone call that I made, the speech therapist on the phone was kind, and caring, and excited. They thought this idea of using the arts to work with young people who stutter was awesome and they said, “Send me a flyer, I will hand it out to my clients,” every one.
From that first list of phone calls, I made some really dear friends. Some of my dearest friends are the leaders in this field, people who really specialize in stuttering. They said, “Yes I’ll give a flyer, but let’s have lunch, let’s have coffee.” It was incredible, just so, so, so incredible to be embraced by the speech language pathology community, and that’s how it’s been for 18 years. I mean, I love this community.
What was very interesting was we started to think again, how can we do more? How can we serve more of the full person in this really holistic way? It was from those conversations with a lot of our participants and a lot of their parents that we thought about, what would it look like at SAY to have an in-house speech therapist, which again was a total shift.
After really thinking about this for a couple of years, we thought this would be great, this would be really great. So much I think of any kind of therapy is building the trust and building the rapport between the speech therapist and the client.
And so, that’s what we were able to do and able to bring in speech therapy in a holistic, accepting way, saying to the young person, “What are your goals? What are your communication goals?” And, I think exploring this idea of yes, you can be an effective, excellent communicator, and be a person who stutters at the same time. Both are true, and let’s work towards that.
And so, the work that we do in speech therapy isn’t so different from the work that we do at camp, isn’t so different from the work that we do in our theater program, you’re just doing it in a one-on-one way, or in a therapeutic group session with a really awesome, fun speech language pathologist who really gets stuttering. And because we’re an organization, there’s a lot of crossover. Your speech language pathologist that you are working with might also be the person that’s helping you write a play, might also be the person that’s holding the mic as you sing your song.
GRAY: The last thing I want to ask you is how SAY has changed you. What have you noticed about yourself that has changed since you founded SAY?
ALEXANDER: Ah, man. I am a completely different person now than I was when I started SAY in 2001. I had a lot more fear in me. I don’t think I knew how kind people are. I don’t think I knew how kind this world is, and how much empathy is out there.
I’m incredibly thankful to every child, and teenager, and parent, and speech language pathology, and grandmother, and grandfather, and aunt, and uncle and everyone for their passion, for their trust in me, for their trust in SAY.
We call SAY a family. We feel like it’s a big family and it’s truly an honor to have been a part of it. And you know, it continues, it’s really wild. We are now at the beginning of our 19th year. We’ve done a lot of really cool things and in many ways, I feel like we’re just getting warmed up. I’m so excited that we’re going to start SAY: DC, and to have a year-round program for young people who stutter in the Washington, DC community. For me to come back home, to come to a city and a region that I love, and that I grew up. Not always having a good time, not having a sense of community to be able to come back to DC and provide a community like SAY for kids here. I couldn’t be more excited about and truly honored to have that opportunity to give back to a community that gave me so much.
GRAY: Taro Alexander is the founder of SAY and will receive the 2019 Annie Award this year at ASHA Convention, thanks.
ALEXANDER: Thanks so much for having me, really appreciate it.
GRAY: See Taro Alexander in My Beautiful Stutter at the ASHA Convention. ASHA is hosting a screening on Thursday, November 21. Stick around for a post-film chat following the screening .
And then on Friday, November 22, Taro will receive the Annie Glenn Award at the ASHA Convention Awards Ceremony.
All of this is at the ASHA Convention in Orlando, Florida.
Registration is open now for ASHA’s largest in-person professional development and networking event. Find out more at Convention dot ASHA dot org.
(Music – ES_Typewriter Song)
Support for this episode of ASHA Voices is brought to you by the Office of Multicultural Affairs at ASHA; celebrating its 50th anniversary. OMA is focused on helping ASHA members address cultural and linguistic diversity in the speech-language-hearing world. Find resources to increase your cultural competence by going to ASHA dot org and searching for multicultural
Support for ASHA Voices also comes from the ASHA Continuing Education Registry. The ASHA C-E Registry serves more than 120,000 ASHA members, and offers access to opportunities to earn ASHA C-E-Us to keep your practice credentials up to date. more about these and many other benefits at asha-dot-org-slash-C-E
Now, we’ll hear from another presenter from ASHA’s upcoming Convention in Orlando. First, listen to this:
Beatboxing. You may know it best from hip hop, but at the University of Southern California, researchers are using these performances for something else. Videos of MRI’s like the one we just heard, give a behind the scenes look at the relationship between vocalization, language, and the body. Reed Blaylock studies linguistics at USC, where he works with these videos, and in November, he will be at the ASHA convention presenting research and observations on beatboxing and speech science. He joins us now from California. Reed, welcome to the show.
BLAYLOCK: Thanks for having me.
GRAY: And joining Reed is one of his former colleagues, a researcher and beatboxer herself, Nimisha Patil. Nimisha, welcome.
PATIL: Thank you.
GRAY: Alright, so, let’s start with some background on beatboxing. Nimisha, give us a quick overview for those who aren’t familiar with it.
PATIL: So beatboxing basically is a musical art form, and you use your mouth or your vocal tract to mimic instruments or percussive sounds. So, a lot a people might be familiar with it; kind of more like the old school hip hop scene, but it has evolved to sort of include different sounds across genres.
GRAY: So you recorded these using MRI’s. So could you tell us a little bit about why… you’re taking this unusual view of this performance?
PATIL: So I think the MRI technology that we have is really useful, because it lets you actually understand what’s going on in the vocal tract. You know usually you hear a beatboxer, or you’re beatboxing yourself, but you don’t really know what’s going on inside your vocal tract. But, this view that we have in the MRI lets you actually see different parts of your throat moving to create these sounds which is a really useful tool.
GRAY: How do you learn to beatbox?
PATIL: So, the most common way that you learn how to beatbox is basically by imitation, and that imitation is acoustic for the most part. You know you’ll hear somebody making the sound, you’ll hear somebody making a sound, a basic sound like a kick drum say where it’s just (makes the sound) and you’re like “Okay well, I wanna make that sound.” And, what you might try to do is you’ll be watching somebody doing the sound, and you’ll see, oh like their lips come together, and that’s basically all you can get from that. So, that’s part one. Then part two is usually beatboxers will be trying to explain. So it’s a lot of kind of stumbling through the description of the articulations that actually occur. But that is the most common way, and that is how most people learn.
GRAY: Do you think you could teach me to, to make one of the sounds now?
PATIL: I can try.
GRAY: Okay, let’s do it.
PATIL: Okay. So… 3 very common sounds in beatboxing are the kick drum, the high hat, and the snare. So you’ll have something like, (Makes the sounds) So, the kind of paired down version of that, that a lot of people kind of go to, is boots and cats. So, think of saying the word “boots”, but just say the B very hard. So boots . .
GRAY: Okay . . .
PATIL: Boots, boots.
GRAY: Boots, boots, boots.
Patil: Okay. So we’re gonna (Yeah) work on your, we’re gonna work on your kick drum a little bit. (Laughs) Okay . . .
Patil: So we can, so here, right now, this is like I’m basically offering you only step 2, because you can’t see what I’m actually doing with my mouth.
GRAY: (Laughs) I, I know . . .
PATIL: Um . . .
GRAY: I need the MRI.
PATIL: Yeah. So basically, you’re gonna put your lips together, and, (Um-hm) press them down, kind of hard to create some pressure, and then let air build up in your mouth a little bit, and sort of let it fall out as you say just the B. So B.
GRAY: Boo. Boo. Boo . . . .
PATIL: So you’re, like, you’re saying like a boo-boo sound.
GRAY: (Laughs) Yeah . . . .
PATIL: Think of, thing of just the B. Get rid of the vowel entirely. Focus . . . .
GRAY: Boo, boo, boo. Boo, Boo.
PATIL: Yeah. Now do that.
GRAY: Boo. Yeah . . .Boo . . .
PATIL: And, you know how you’re vocalizing; you’re saying Be, Be, Boo, boo, Bu.
PATIL: Take the vocalization out of it. Only do what you’re doing with your lips.
BLAYLOCK: Whisper it.
GRAY: B, b, b, b. b.
GRAY: Yay! (Laugh)
PATIL: There you go. So yeah.
GRAY: Alright. I’m on my way . . ..
PATIL: That’s great to hear—Yeah (Laugh) you’re definitely on your way. (Laugh)
GRAY: Tell me a little bit about working as an interdisciplinary team. When you sat down together, how did those conversations go?
BLAYLOCK: we would get together and… sit down and just watch videos over and over again. We started off with some of the, of the more common sounds; kick drums, high hats, K snares, and then… we would try to describe what was happening. I would be shocked at everything that was happening in the vocal tract because I was seeing all kinds of things that I never expected to see. The kick drums and the high hats not so much. Those are sounds that are similar to sounds you find in language. But, as we progressed farther on, we got to click rolls and…
GRAY: What clicks, what are those?
BLAYLOCK: Wanna… Nimisha?
PATIL: So… click rolls and inward bases are pretty advanced sounds. Frankly they’re sounds that I’m still working on, and I can’t do them fully properly yet. But, you know there’s beatboxers out there that will basically… manipulate their tongue or their lips in certain ways, and these are sort of the sounds that Reed had mentioned before where, we’re not really sure we find them in any known language.
So… I’ll do kind of like an outward lip roll. But something like… (makes the sound 5 times). And then you can do that inward as well, which mine isn’t as fully developed. But it’s like, (makes the sound 2 times.) That’s not what it’s supposed to sound like, but you know, it’s, it’s on its way . . .
GRAY: It sounds like you’re shuffling a deck of cards. (Laughs)
PATIL:(Laughs) Yeah, yeah, it does sound like that.
BLAYLOCK: What really gets me is, on sounds like that… lip roll, and the click roll, at least some variance to click roll, what you’re seeing is not a typical inward to outward pulmonic air stream. That is you’re not seeing the lungs handling all of the breathing action. Instead you’re getting… the tongue creating a closure and then pushing forward. The tongue is squeezing air out past the tongue tip for the click roll, or past the lips for the lip roll. It’s a… it’s a pretty novel way of manipulating air flow in the vocal tract.
GRAY: What can we learn from this research and the beatboxing videos about how we communicate with each other?
PATIL: That’s a loaded question.
BLAYLOCK: It is a loaded question. So, it, it’s a big question.
GRAY: Did you have any key takeaways?
PATIL: I think to start off, I think some of the key takeaways that we had were, first of all, there are certain sounds that beatboxers make that aren’t found in any known language. So, that is a huge takeaway, because it sort of helps kind of expand our definition of what the vocal tract can do.
BLAYLOCK: Yeah. It invites a lot a questions. Maybe it doesn’t tell us so much about how we communicate, but it invites a lot of questions about how we don’t communicate. So… beatboxers do use sounds where you breathe inward, but in speech we don’t usually do that. Beatboxers use sounds where the tongue is squeezing air out of the mouth, but in speech we don’t usually do that either. Why does Beatboxing have all of these sounds that speech doesn’t have? Why doesn’t speech have all of these beatboxing sounds? If the human mouth can do these things, then why don’t we all the time? Why don’t these sounds appear in language?
Whole categories of sounds and sound combinations aren’t used. And so there’s a question about whether this is some kind of conspiracy. there’s a question about whether this is some kind of conspiracy in a, in a phonological sense, conspiracy here is just a trend to be in a particular direction because of a tendency of the language faculty. Or whether it’s because of a giant accident that we don’t actually beatbox while we’re speaking. That kind of question gives us some… some food for thought, something to chew on as we’re thinking about how we communicate with each other.
GRAY: Alright. Reed, Nimisha, thank you for your time today; I appreciate it. I’m gonna keep workin’ on my kick drum noise there. (Nimisha laughs)
BLAYLOCK: You’ll get it.
GRAY: (Laugh) Thanks. Nimisha, would you mind one more time giving us a beat that we can go out on?
PATIL: Of course, of course. Let’s go. (she makes several beatbox sounds.)
GRAY: Wow, that’s awesome; thank you.
BLAYLOCK: Thank you.
GRAY: The beatboxing you heard at the beginning of this interview came from videos of MRIs collected and analyzed by Professor Shri Narayanan and his team, including Reed Blaylock and Nimisha Patil, at the University of Southern California. The research is conducted with support from N-I-H and N-S-F.
See Reed Blaylock at ASHA Convention 2019. He’ll be presenting on his research about beatboxing. Learm more at convention dot asha dot org.
(Music: ES_Forest Pond With Stars – Polar Nights)
ASHA Voices is produced by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and comes from the team behind the ASHA Leader magazine.
Support for this episode of ASHA Voices is brought to you by the Office of Multicultural Affairs at ASHA. Go to ASHA dot org and search for multicultural to find ways to increase your cultural competence.
Support for ASHA Voices comes from the ASHA Continuing Education Registry. Learn how to earn and track C-E-Us at asha-dot-org-slash-C-E
A special thank you to Ryan Gielen for letting us use the clip of Taro Alexander from My Beautiful Stutter that we played at the beginning of this episode. Remember, you can see the film on Thursday, November 21 at ASHA Convention in Orlando.
Production assistance comes from Pamela Lorence. I’m J.D. GRAY, and this is ASHA Voices.
Next time on ASHA Voices …
What do you see when you look at an audiogram? It may not be the same experience for the audiologist and the client.
We’ll be joined by staff members on the Ida Institute in Denmark to discuss hearing loss in the wild, where it affects clients.
What we talk about when we talk about hearing loss…Next time on ASHA Voices.