Talking it easy: an insight into speaking with a stammer

Ireland recently marked the 6th National Stammering Awareness Day with events in Dublin. The College View’s Mary McDonnell caught up with David Heney to get an insight into growing up with a stammer.

David Heney was six when he first realised he had a stammer. He had always done so, but thought it was part of learning how to speak. But when his speech was not consistent at that age, he finally knew. “But I was lucky,” he told The College View in a now clear and confident voice. “I wasn’t teased as much compared to others I’ve met.”

His main problem was reading aloud at school. And we all remember the terror of that. He let the problem lie for years but eventually, it got to the stage when it needed to be fixed. He started speech therapy but found it awkward and stressful. Not the therapy itself, but David was hiding his stammer at work. He could only get an appointment for half four and that meant leaving work early and the explanations that go with it. He quit therapy after just a month.

There are four factors which can cause stammering: genetics, child development, neurophysiology and family dynamics. The Stuttering Association says children with other developmental problems are likely to stammer. It says research has shown that those with this problem process speech and language in different parts of the brain and that sometimes, high expectations and a fast-paced lifestyle can cause it. Genetics is pretty clear-cut. “My father has a stammer”, said David.

David is aware that there are different types of stammers, and not everyone is the same. Some people are covert. They hide the problem by avoiding words they know to be difficult. Some people only stammer when speaking in groups, others when speaking one-on-one. And some people have trouble only when they speak to an authority figure. “A lot of it is from experience as well”, he added. “If you are prone to stammering, you end up having a block. Say you go into a shop or school and stammer on a word, apprehension builds up every time you go into a shop or school again, and you end up stammering.”

Speech therapists help people by using some well-learned techniques. ‘Voluntary stuttering’ is stammering on purpose to make yourself aware of what it’s like when you do it. This helps you to recognise when you are about to stammer in the future.

‘Pausing’ is effective. When you think you are going to stumble on a word, you stop and think about what it is you want to say. This reduces the frequency of stammers.
“Speech therapy is hard work and can take years. You have to keep up the practice or the problem could come back”, added David.

And it isn’t just about speech alone. Some people have trouble keeping eye contact and often look away when they start to stutter. That is where group therapy is fantastic.
David joined the Irish Stammering Association (ISA) six years ago, which provides self-help group classes. It isn’t therapy, but people can talk about their feelings and experiences, and even share and practice different speech therapy techniques together. They advise each other on certain situations like job interviews, if someone has been there before.

The ISA hosts open days at which all are welcome every October on International Stammering Awareness Day. The organisation also hosts ISA Conference Days every Easter for members.

“ISA changed my life,” said David. “It completely changed my perspective on how I viewed stammering.”

Mary Mc Donnell

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