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Thursday, December 23,2010

Pause to reflect

Three local perspectives on stuttering

by Lawrence Cosentino

Sharon Emery seems like too nice a person to practice jiu-jitsu — but watch out. She can flip you before you know you’ve been flipped.


As vice president of the Rossman Group, a high-profile public relations firm in Lansing, Emery deals with Michigan’s big shots on a regular basis.


She’s also a stutterer.


In “The King’s Speech,” which opens Saturday in Lansing, the stuttering King George VI of England is terrified of addressing the world via radio.


The panicky king and the poised P.R. queen make an interesting pair. Colin Firth’s King George is a pressurized cauldron of anger and fear. Emery exudes warmth and confidence, even though her stutter is no less severe.


She has even flipped her “disability” into a handy social tool, to find out right away whether you’re an insensitive jerk.


“This is almost my litmus test for people,” she said. “Immediately when I start speaking, you relay tons of information to me. Some people totally freak and some are perfectly accepting.”


Last week, Emery interviewed Michigan’s lieutenant governor-elect, Brian Calley. The two had never met.


“He was one of those people who accepts you immediately, for exactly the way you are,” Emery said. “I could tell right away. So it’s a very useful tool.”


For higher-stress situations, she has an ace in the hole.


“The age-old tool of imagining people without clothes always works,” she cracked.


In “The King’s Speech,” working-class therapist Lionel Logue earns the king’s trust and helps him face up to Hitler on the world stage.


In the real world, therapy helps, but stutterers are left largely to draw upon their own inner resources. There’s no cure and no consensus on the cause.


Emery began speech therapy in second grade. She soon realized she was among the 25 percent of childhood stutterers who never recover.


In her 30s, after trying a variety of therapies with limited success, she asked a psychologist if there was “something wrong” with her. The psychologist asked Emery whether she was pleased with her social, personal and professional lives. She said yes. Emery’s stutter shrank into perspective.


“I saw someone who was smart enough to say, ‘Maybe it’s not a bad thing,’” Emery said. “That brought everything together. I came to the conclusion that maybe it’s OK that I’m a person who stutters, and that was a real revelation.”


Three million people — or 1 percent of Americans — stutter, according to Paul Cooke, an associate professor at Michigan State University’s Communicative Sciences and Disorders Department. Cooke has stuttered since he was 5 or 6 years old.


He has to constantly control his stuttering or, when it pops out, keep it in perspective.


“I still view myself as a person who stutters, but I consider myself a controlled stutterer,” Cooke said.


Cooke hasn’t seen “The King’s Speech,” but he’s familiar with the story.


As a therapist, Cooke said, he’s used all of the techniques Logue uses in the film, albeit with technological enhancement. These include loosening-up exercises, deep breathing, singing, music therapy and tongue twisters.


“They’re in the ball game, the context of what we do,” he said.


Emery picked up many of these techniques during her years of therapy, through her college years and beyond. “Everything helped a little bit,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve learned things and integrated them into who I was.”


The worst thing about stuttering, Cooke said, is the cruel exposure it gives the sufferer.


“You don’t walk up to a guy or a girl in a bar and say, ‘Hey, did you know that I’m a chronic liar?’” Cooke said. “The stutterer comes off as, ‘My name is — my name is P — my name is — m-m-my name is Paul Cooke.’ And that’s the first 15 seconds.”


Give stuttering an inch, Cooke said, and it can take over your life.


“We
have stutterers who give the wrong answer in class because they would
have stuttered on the right answer,” Cooke said. “When calling for a
pizza, they might order ham instead of pepperoni.”


“Who you ask out on a date, what’s your major, what you order for lunch — all of it goes through this filter.”


The
on-line community of stutterers has welcomed “The King’s Speech” for
its realism and empathy, with one caveat. Cooke and other experts are
skeptical about the film’s implication that childhood trauma is to blame
for stuttering.


“If psychological stress or family disruption in early life caused stuttering, everybody would be stuttering,” Cooke said.


Instead,
Cooke thinks stuttering is caused by a combination of factors that
“predispose” people to stuttering (premature birth, genetic inheritance)
and environmental factors (early stress and trauma).


Some
of the most cutting-edge research on stuttering is being done at MSU,
by Soo-Eun Chang, an assistant professor in the same department as
Cooke.


“It’s an exciting field,” Chang said. “I’m glad people are now getting more interested in this complex condition that has eluded researchers for years.”


In a 2008 study, Chang scanned the brains of children who stuttered. She found evidence supporting “very subtle disorganization” in the white matter tracts, or the pathways of white stuff in the brain that shuttle nerve impulses from one part of the brain to another.


Chang
hypothesized that important connections between speech-related parts of
the brain are re-forming naturally in the brains of children who
recover from stuttering, but not in those who don’t.


The
findings were promising enough for Chang to snag a $1.8 million grant
from the National Institute of Health this year to do a large-scale
study.


Now
Chang is looking for children who stutter, aged 3 to 8. (The scans are
completely non-invasive; see the box that accompanies this story.)


Chang’s study will also probe a puzzling gender disparity. For every woman who stutters, there are about four or five men who stutter.


“For some reason, and we don’t know why, girls recover from stuttering a lot more than boys who stutter,” Chang said.


Cooke
approves of Chang’s research and hopes a drug can be developed some
day. A brain stimulation technique is also a possibility.


In the meantime, Chang said, therapy is still the “gold standard,” but it’s no panacea.


“Most
adults, particularly at the beginning, would benefit from speech
therapy, but this is behavioral,” she said. Any gains in fluency must be
monitored and practiced for life.


Cooke said he’s happy if he gets a client to the point where stuttering is “a spoke in the wheel, not the hub.”


“It’s a characteristic of who they are, but not the defining characteristic,” he said.


Emery has gone further than that. She has leveraged coping into flourishing.


“It’s
a part of who I am, and I would not be the person I am without this,”
she said. “This is pretty much about as good as I’m going to get, and I
think it’s great.”


If your child between the ages of 3 and 8 years old stutters and you
would like more information about Dr. Soo-Eun Chang’s study, funded by
the National Institute of Health, call (517) 884- 2257 or (517) 432-
1264 or go to changlab.cas.msu.edu/parent.htm.

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