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Intensive speech therapy for stutterers makes its U debut


Ryan Halleman didn't stutter or stammer as he gave his graduation speech last August. His head didn't bob or weave as he spoke. His eyes turned to his notes without excessive blinking or grimacing. He made eye contact with his Successful Stuttering Management Program audience and stood calmly as he shared his gut-wrenching and frustrating 18 years as a stutterer.

Ryan will always be a stutterer. His greatest hope as a young boy was to outgrow it. His goal as a young man is to learn to manage his speech fluency. Attending the University of Utah's first SSMP program was his first step in that direction.

Bright and determined, Ryan, from Arcadia, California, has the boyish good looks of Brad Pitt, the physical presence of a soccer player, and a golf score that could qualify him for a local college team. He is marked for success.

But at age 18, healthy and with his high school diploma in his hand, he hadn't considered any of his options or opportunities. He was a severe stutterer.

His uncontrolled physical reaction while answering a phone call confirmed in his own mind the fear that he might never overcome his speech disorder. Saying "hello" on the telephone was sometimes impossible for him.

At the outset of the Successful Stuttering Management Program, stutterers like Ryan are encouraged to stutter as much as they can for the first 10 days. They are urged to "let go," "experience it," "study it," and get to know as much as they can about their stuttering and their stuttering-motivated behaviors.

By conducting mock surveys in shopping malls and watching their speech patterns by talking into mirrors and video cameras, stuttering program participants probe their own behavior. Not only do the activities encourage self-study, they provide insight into how stuttering is perceived by others. Communicating by telephone is particularly difficult for most stutterers, so they push their limits by initiating conversations, both by phone and in person.

"Sometimes their stuttering will decrease even before they get to the 'handling' techniques," says Tom Gurrister BS'81 MS'86, University of Utah adjunct instructor and overseer of the SSMP project. "It's almost as though they have been given permission to stutter, so they don't anymore," he adds. Understanding stuttering and "letting go" of the related fear, frustration, and anxiety accounts, in part, for noticeable improvement.

The final 10 days of the speech management program focus on three management techniques:

1. Prolongation – Exaggerating the first sound of the first word at the beginning of a sentence and on stuttered words.

2. Cancellation – Pausing for two or three seconds after stuttering, and then returning to the word to try to pronounce it in a better way.

3. Pullout – Pulling off a blocked word and sliding forward.

A fourth activity is negative practice, in which stutterers purposely stutter in order to actually release some stuttering.

Speech therapists generally agree that examining feelings is an important part of treatment. Until the techniques adopted by the SSMP were introduced more than 40 years ago, therapists had never seen any structured, concrete ideas about how to address the emotional aspects of stuttering. "By not addressing the feelings of the stutterer, we're only dealing with the symptoms. Treatment is more than just saying to the stutterer, 'You just need to practice more,'" Gurrister says. "The intent now is not to eliminate the stuttering, or cure it, but to manage it," he adds.

Research is also being conducted to help identify the causes and, possibly, cures for stuttering. It has commonly been perceived as a nervous disorder, but it is not. Nor is it a trait that accompanies timidity or shyness. It is, however, neurological. Research indicates there is a genetic component of stuttering.

"There's something in the interaction of the environment and the development that combines to bring out stuttering. It's a combination of those things – environmental factors, developmental factors, and physical factors," ventures Gurrister, who is fond of pointing out the accomplishments of historical figures who stuttered. "A look at history doesn't clarify the picture either. Moses, who led the Hebrew people out of bondage; Winston Churchill, who led the British people and the free world through World War II; and Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution altered the world's thinking on the origin of mankind – all stutterers. More recently, Somerset Maugham, rock star Carly Simon, and former National Basketball Association player and television sports commentator Bill Walton were stutterers who managed. And that's the key – management," says Gurrister.

Gurrister says that inroads to therapy have been publicized recently at American Speech-Language Hearing Association and National Stuttering Project meetings. However, some speech therapists still find stuttering so challenging to treat that they exclude stutterers from their practices.

"Understanding my stuttering and the feelings involved gave me the perspective I needed to manage my fluency."

In the summer of 1996, Gurrister spent a week as an observer at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, Washington, where SSMP was founded. "I was deeply impressed," he says. "SSMP wasn't the missing piece of my program, it was more like the missing half. As important as any one part of the program was the understanding that we, as therapists, were dealing with the feelings of stutterers – the shame, fear, anxiety, and frustration," he explains.

Soon afterward, Gurrister introduced the SSMP treatment concept to the University of Utah's Communication Disorders Department of the College of Health. He shared his enthusiasm with John Dunn, dean and department chair, and Professor Mary Louise Willbrand. The three agreed that besides providing stutterers a pathway to speech fluency (and by doing so literally turning their lives around), the program would enhance the training for U student clinicians and therapists. The trio agreed to model the U's program after researcher Dorvan Breitenfeldt's now 40-year-old approach to speech therapy.

Participants' nearly three-week immersion in the study and management of stuttering is the key to success of the SSMP method. Two clinicians who are graduate students in speech-language therapy, a supervisor, and a counselor are assigned to direct the activities of each stutterer. "It's non-stop for 19 days – and it works," Gurrister says as he contemplates undertaking the process for a second time.

Graduates of the University of Utah inaugural SSMP had no difficulty expressing their feelings of appreciation for the 19-day session that gave them new hope, new goals, and new tools.

Five months after undergoing treatment, Ryan now answers his telephone with a crisp "hello." There is no stutter, stammer, or reluctance to his voice. Following commencement exercises he landed a job working with the public and now plans to attend college in 1999. Fellow coursemate, Bart Kadleck, Jr., 17, of Salt Lake City, reports, "understanding my stuttering and the feelings involved gave me the perspective I needed to manage my fluency. I'm more concerned with what I have to say and not how I say it." Another teenager, Sam Bennion, 18, of Los Altos, now attends a business college in Salt Lake City.

Commencement exercises for this small group lasted six hours. They featured videotape of participants speaking on the first day and at the midpoint of the 19-day session, shown to illustrate the progress of each participant. There were few dry eyes among the families and friends who shared the accounts of the nine graduates. This portion of the program consumed several hours of the ceremony as some of the participants struggled for minutes just to get out the words, "My name is...." Final remarks by the same individuals left little doubt that each was on the way to a new beginning.

– Former Deseret News writer Dave Kadleck BS'60 worked for 25 years with the Utah Education Association, where he was director for professional programs. His grandson, Bart Kadleck, Jr., is a graduate of the Successful Stuttering Management Program.

Dorvan Breitenfeldt: Silent No More
World War II was coming to a close in the summer of 1944. It was the same year 14-year-old Dorvan Breitenfeldt decided to end his educational pursuits.

Dorvan was a stutterer. The shame, fear, anxiety, and frustration of stuttering was more than a junior high school boy could endure. For three years after dropping out, he pondered his future – as a stutterer.

At age 17, Dorvan returned to school. At age 21, he received his high school diploma.

Then Breitenfeldt embarked on a four-decade journey. With his own life experience as a stutterer and a passel of credentials in communication disorders and speech pathology, Breitenfeldt charted his professional path. Certainly foremost in his mind was the hope of preventing 14-year-old stutterers – or any stutterers – from experiencing the negative feelings he endured as a young man.

Breitenfeldt developed a program to help stutterers recognize the fact that they're stutterers, understand that there are multiple varieties of stutterers, and to manage their disfluency through handling techniques. From the beginning, it was obvious that understanding and addressing the feelings of stutterers was important. The year was 1954. The Successful Stuttering Management Program (SSMP) met for the first time.

The University of Johannesburg, South Africa, recently adopted the SSMP model. "It was one of my proudest moments," Breitenfeldt says. "I would like my legacy to be for universities from across the world to adopt my program," he adds.

Breitenfeldt, who developed and refined SSMP for the past four decades at Eastern Washington University, came out of retirement for the fourth time this past August to help that journey begin at the U of U. The intensive session will take place for the second time at the University of Utah in August. For those interested in more information on the stuttering management method developed by Breitenfeldt, contact the University of Utah's Communication Disorders Department at the College of Health, 581-6725.

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