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Utahn speaks out on stuttering, early intervention

He has ordered hamburger when he really wanted chicken because chicken was too hard to say. He has kept quiet when he's known the answer, has made his mom make phone calls for him, has dreaded saying his own name.

For his entire verbal life, 17-year-old David Ashton has stuttered, but only recently has he learned both to accept himself and to communicate fearlessly if not flawlessly.David is benefiting from new treatments for stuttering. But if he had received help when he was a preschooler, says speech therapist Tom Gurrister, he probably would not be a stutterer today.

Early intervention is the only way to really cure stuttering, says Gurrister, who will be one of two keynote speakers at a stuttering workshop at the University of Utah this weekend.

"That's the No. 1 message we want to get across," said Gurrister, a therapist at Wasatch Speech and Hearing Center. "Early intervention is successful. And the younger the better."

Most stutterers begin stuttering when they are 2 to 3 years old; in other words, when their brains are first trying to master how to put their thoughts into words.

When Ashton was little, the conventional wisdom was still that children often "outgrew" their stuttering. Well-meaning adults tended to finish his sentences for him and urged him to "just take a deep breath."

What speech therapists know now is that parents need to be trained to be patient listeners - to not interrupt or fill in missing words - and to model slow speech themselves.

"They need to talk slowly and simply, with lots and lots of pauses," Gurrister said.

If a stutterer's family is properly trained, he says, in 90 percent of cases the stuttering can be eliminated. "But after age 5, you can only work at getting the stuttering under control. You can't eliminate it."

It's still not clear what causes a person to stutter, Gurrister says. What researchers do know, he says, is that it's not a question of nervousness or timidity, it's not a result of repressive parenting, and it has nothing to do with the shape of the stutterer's tongue - all once respectable theories.

"Our best guess is that it's a complex interaction of many variables" that include a genetic, biological problem with language processing.

For older stutterers like David, Gurrister says, the best therapy includes his own acceptance of himself as a stutterer and a focus on speech modification rather than fluency.

This past summer, David spent a few weeks at the Successful Stuttering Management Program in Cheney, Wash. The curriculum included hundreds of phone calls and face-to-face encounters with strangers.

"Hi, my name is David and I'm a stutterer," he would say at the beginning of each. "Self-advertisement," therapists call it - a technique that creates a stutter-friendly environment in which the stutterer is no longer pretending to be something he's not.

The program is the kind of place where a stutterer can sit in the back or never raise his hand or take a sick day when an oral report is due. Instead, David got lots of practice using a technique called "prolongation" - a sort of gentle revving up of the lips on the first word of a sentence, which is the place where most disfluency takes place.

Gurrister and other therapists with the Utah chapter of the National Stuttering Project hope to bring a satellite version of the Successful Stuttering Management Program to Salt Lake City next summer.



Workshop Saturday

"Understanding Stuttering: The People and the Problem" will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the University of Utah Social Work Auditorium. Registration is $30 for NSP members, $35 for non-members, $40 for families and $10 for students. A $5 fee will be added for those paying at the door. Scholarships are available. For more information about the conference or about monthly NSP support groups, call 272-6420 or 535-2203.