What are my qualifications? I’m a medical writer/researcher and PWS who has walked the walk and found a way to reach a level of consistent fluency that I could not have imagined in the past–by focusing on the brain basis of stuttering. [Note: “PWS” is the politically correct term–it means “person(s) who stutter(s).”]
I’ve given presentations on the Brain Basis of Stuttering and Neuropatterning for Fluency at several National Stuttering Association (NSA) conventions. I’ve been a columnist for McClatchy-Tribune newspapers and Prevention magazine, and have published eight books. My most satisfying recent project was completing the new Home Course and making it available once again.
Perhaps my best qualification is that I’m not a speech-language pathologist (SLP) or a psychologist. No disrespect intended to these hard-working professionals, but occasionally, the greatest insights come from someone outside the field in question. I have no burden to carry on traditional dogma. Once dogma–with inaccuracies–gets embedded in textbooks, it tends to be accepted without much critical thinking. And those in any particular field may feel a pressure to “stay in line with traditional thought and methods.” A speech-language pathologist (SLP) yet-to-be once took me to task for “going against the bulk of modern thinking” about stuttering. Well, it needs to be gone against. We need a fresh start in thinking about stuttering. And a lot of researchers and SLPs agree with me. They just tend to not make much fuss about it.
In physics, it is said that when a young physicist presents a new way of looking at our world, even though it might be more accurate than the older way, the new way is not accepted for a generation. The reason is that the old guard does not relish giving up the status quo (funding, professional status, etc.) to which they may have committed an entire career. In essence, the old guard has to fade away. (Then the new guard becomes the old guard and the cycle repeats.)
Until 1992, I stuttered and had severe speech blocks. In school, I couldn’t hide the problem. As an adult, like many PWS, I fooled people (probably not as many as I thought) by speaking as little as possible, by staying silent whenever possible, and using frequent word substitutions.
Following is the story of how my new-found fluency came about.
Toward the end of 1991, I applied to take the Hollins precision fluency shaping program. As it turned out, I almost decided to cancel my program reservation a few weeks before I was scheduled to attend. The reason is that I had become fluent between the time I applied to take the program and the time I was to attend. There was a waiting list, so this interim time period was several weeks.
Hollins sent me a video tape and some descriptive material of the course. Basically, the idea of the program was to “reconstruct” speech from the ground up. This made me think about something I was familiar with: the methods used to help brain-injured children and adults reconstruct their lost brain function. I knew that stuttering was due to a brain flaw (I’d realized that decades ago). I wondered why I had never thought to use these methods in a systematic way with speech function–rather than just slipping into the limbo of inaction for all these years.
The ideas for a formal plan started coming together. I made lists of especially difficult words. I “practiced” these words and sounds using techniques I developed based on the methods used for brain-injured persons. I had no idea at the time that some of my techniques were similar (but different in crucial ways) to the Hollins techniques.
I also had no real hope that what I was doing might be helpful. I just did it. I knew that I was going to take the Hollins program anyway, so it didn’t really matter whether my “program” worked or not.
A few weeks later, something amazing happened. One morning my car wouldn’t start (that’s not the amazing thing). I called the repair shop and they sent a truck out. The guy said he’d give me a battery jump. I’d noticed some other engine symptoms before, and I felt I might get stranded somewhere if the problem turned out to be more than a dead battery. So this was what I wanted to say to the guy as he gave me a critical stare: “I just want you to make sure it’s not a problem in the electrical system.” From experience, I knew I’d block on the word “electrical,” and probably some of the other words as well. PWS know the feeling. I always blocked on words starting with vowel sounds. And “electrical” also had that damn “L” sound following the vowel. But no word to substitute popped into my mind.
The need to say what I wanted was more important than the discomfort of blocking, so I began to speak the above sentence. Before I knew it, the word “electrical” had slipped out with no block, as did all the other words, in perfect fluency. Though this may not sound like a big deal, most PWS know that each of us is the world’s leading authority on his/her own individual stuttering condition. Trust me, this was indeed a big deal for me. It was unprecedented for me to have perfect fluency in such a situation. (Hey, I was the same guy that would take his car in to get a front-end alignment and pretend I didn’t know the proper term so the mechanic would say the word “alignment” for me. Then I would shake my head in agreement.)
Astonishing things continued to happen. I followed the guy to the repair shop and the mechanic came over to look at the car. To check my new fluency, which I suspected would turn out to be a fluke, I decided to say the same sentence to him. I did and the words came out freely again. By now, the odds against this happening twice in row had taken on exponential proportions. Realize that during all this, I hadn’t even thought about the word exercises I’d been doing. When I did think about that, I remember thinking: Could it possibly be that I’d accidentally hit on something that was really working to help my speech? I have a tendency to be pretty cynical, so in the throes of this ecstasy, I still leaned toward the fluke idea.
But everything I said that day was fluent. It was like a switch had been thrown. And you can be sure I put myself in situations to test it, including the one true test of fluency: sitting at a lunch table making small talk with other people, a situation in which timing, glibness, and inflection are everything. After such a long drought, I caught myself being a conversation hog. I was telling jokes flawlessly. I could hardly contain myself! For the first time since I began stuttering at an early age, I actually knew how it felt to be a nonstutterer. Back in high school, a nonstutterer friend had told me that talking was as easy as expelling air. It was true! To a nonstutterer, talking really is effortless.
I decided to lay off doing my program. I wanted to test the association between it and my new fluency level, and I also was afraid to do anything that might disturb the possibly delicate balance of whatever was allowing me to speak so fluently. This consistent fluency lasted about two weeks. Then I began to feel the neurologic speech block gradually resurfacing enough to begin affecting my speech. I started the program again. After a few days, I was back to that consistent fluency level in which the neurologic block was gone. Occasionally, I could feel the presence of the block on the fringes, but it was no longer strong enough to deter my fluent speech. It’s hard to explain, but once you get there, you’ll know what I mean. I began thinking that I might really be on to something here.
I was tempted to cancel my scheduled reservation for the Hollins program. I was already fluent. How could they help an already fluent person? But I decided I’d better not let the Hollins opportunity slip by. What if my new-found fluency turned out to be temporary? I half-heartedly hoped that I would start stuttering again a little bit, because I figured you had to be stuttering for Hollins to know what needed fixing, and I hated to waste this opportunity. I had this terrible feeling that my stutter might lay in hiding just long enough to let me get through Hollins without benefiting from their program and then return with a vengeance. I said I was cynical. (Why did this make me feel like George Costanza on Seinfeld?)
The first day I got to Hollins, our group was shuffled into a waiting room without clinicians present. We introduced each other. I was the only one who didn’t stutter. Of course, I chattered. I told them about my idea that stuttering was a neurologic disorder. The parents of a teenage boy, a PWS there for treatment, asked me if I were a clinician. When I told them I was there to take the fluency program like all the others, they appeared shocked.
Toward the end of the Hollins program, I felt my neurologic speech block beginning to slide back in. After Hollins, I faithfully followed the prescribed post-program procedures, but my fluency dipped to a so-so level. I blocked now and then and could not get back to the consistent fluency I’d had before going to Hollins. I knew a higher level existed because I had experienced it. After several months, I went back to my own program. After a few weeks, the original consistent fluency level resurfaced, and I never looked back.
The neuropatterning Home Course evolved from that original program I created for myself.