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Stuttering, no longer a social death sentence

King George VI avoided public speaking. So did most stutterers of his generation. But today there are effective therapies and a promising drug, too.

Recently, patients have presented Daniel Hunter with novel suggestions.

“They say, ‘I saw it in the film,’” he says. “But I have to tell them that smoking, drinking whiskey and rolling on the floor doesn’t cure stuttering.”

“The good thing 'The King’s' Speech has shown is how incredibly courageous people who stammer are,” says Hunter, a leading British speech therapist. “Every day, stutterers do something that terrifies them. For them, even ordering a meal over the phone is an ordeal. But the bad thing the film has done is giving people the impression that Logue’s techniques work.”

Therapies to cure stuttering have, in fact, changed fundamentally since the time of King George VI. While stammering used to be considered a psychological condition – as in the case of George VI – it’s now seen as a genetic brain disorder.

“Today’s treatments provide motor skills that help stutterers control their speech”, explains Luc De Nil, Professor of Speech Language Pathology at the University of Toronto. “Modern therapies also minimize the stuttering by reducing the tension in the body. And we’ve realized that the earlier you treat a person who stammers, the better it is. 50 years ago, people worried that speech therapy in children would increase the stuttering.”

Young children have a 90 percent chance of losing their stutter, often with the help of therapy.

But most of all, modern therapies try to make stutterers comfortable with themselves, thereby reducing their anxiety and easing social interactions.

That’s because there’s still no cure for stammering.

“Ever since people became interested in the brain process of stammering, there have been a cases of miracle cures thanks to medication”, notes De Nil. “But the side effects, including loss of motor skills and huge weight gain, were so severe that using drugs was considered unethical.”

Stutterers, still treated like imbeciles
As a child, Anita Blom was constantly bullied by schoolmates. One teacher regularly told her to read her homework assignment aloud. She received lower grades because she didn’t finish her aural presentations in time.

And Blom’s parents were so ashamed of her stutter that they refused to mention the word.

“The situation is still very difficult”, says Blom, who has learned to minimize her stammer and now serves as chairman of the Swedish Stammer Association. “Teachers aren’t trained to address it, doctors think children will grow out of it, and employers believe the myth that stammering people are less talented.”

Stuttering professor, developing miracle drug
Gerald Maguire stutters. He’s also the man to whom stutterers around the world pin their hopes.

Maguire, professor of Stuttering Treatment, Psychiatry & Human Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, is developing today’s most promising medical treatment of stuttering. Maguire’s Kirkup Center for the Medical Treatment of Stuttering is the only in the world dedicated to developing drug therapies for people who stutter.

His current trial focuses on Asenapine, a drug used by people with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Maguire estimates that the drug has reduced own his stammer by 80 percent.

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