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Spotlight on Stuttering

Speech-language pathologist Michelle Jones discusses the impact of "The King's Speech"

February 23, 2011 | by Stephen Anzaldi
Watch the trailer for "The King's Speech," which is nominated for 12 Oscars at Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony.
Michelle Jones

Michelle Jones is a clinical instructor at the Speech and Language Clinic based in the School of Communication.
England's future King George VI stuffs his mouth full of marbles and strains to speak in an early scene during "The King's Speech." The historical film, up for 12 Oscars at Sunday's Academy Awards, stars Colin Firth as a powerful man feeling powerless to cure his debilitating lifelong stutter. Red-faced and nearly choking, the Duke of York finally explodes, spits out the marbles and flees another failed therapy session.

"That was indeed rather unorthodox," said Michelle Jones, a Northwestern University speech-language pathologist. "But we have to remember some techniques depicted in the movie are based on theories of stuttering a long time ago."

As the film develops, Firth's character meets therapist Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush. The two men forge a relationship as the Duke unexpectedly ascends to the throne in 1936, at a time when he desperately seeks to find his own authoritative voice in leading his country against Nazi Germany.

"Seeing the client-clinician relationship build between the two main characters was amazing because that is such a huge component of therapy today," said Jones, a clinical instructor at the Speech and Language Clinic based in the School of Communication.

The clinic provides evaluation and treatment to clients of all ages in areas including articulation and phonology, aphasia, traumatic brain injury, as well as stuttering, which affects more than 3 million Americans and approximately one percent of the world's total population.

Northwestern News talked with Jones about "The King's Speech" and how speech therapy has evolved since the days of George VI.

What message do you take away from "The King's Speech?"

It gives the public a really good idea of what stuttering is, how it affects people and how one can persevere through that struggle. Rather than showing a weak character, the movie sheds a positive light on the disorder itself. It provides knowledge about stuttering and an opportunity to talk about it. And that's great, you know, because when you avoid talking about a subject it implies there's something bad about it.

Did that marbles therapy ever work?

(Laughing) No, I've certainly never tried it. Our therapeutic styles have changed over time.

What does treatment look like today?

We don't just treat the motor components of stuttering, those outward behaviors that everyone associates with the disorder. We treat the whole person. What happens when someone stutters over a long period of time is they come to believe they're not effective communicators. So when we treat stuttering, we're not setting out to "cure" it. We create strategies to manage the motor breakdowns and use counseling to target the negative attitudes and emotions that are so strong.

How do emotions come into play?

Negative feelings and emotions can arise from stuttering. For example, if a person stutters upon saying their name, they feel embarrassed. The next time they're asked to say their name, they think, "What if I stutter again?" Anxiety leads to tension. And tension can increase the likelihood of stuttering. When that person stutters on their name again, negative thoughts like fear and shame become real. So it's just as important to focus on attitudes and feelings as it is to teach fluency.

From a motor standpoint, what's happening when someone stutters?

It's different for every person, but essentially the normal talking process includes three parts: respiration, how we're breathing; phonation, making sound come out; and articulation, forming the sounds to make our words.

The breakdown can happen at any of these points. For instance, someone could have a breakdown at the level of phonation, in the vocal cords. Maybe sound just doesn't come out. We call that a block. A block also can happen at articulation. When I'm trying to use a word that starts with the "B" sound, maybe my lips come together a little too hard and block that sound from coming out. Or I might even repeat that starting "B" sound. Certain patterns exist but everyone's stutter manifests itself a little differently.

What are myths associated with stuttering?

Unfortunately there is still widespread negativity about people who stutter. There is the idea that stutterers are unable to do certain jobs or lack the intelligence of others. But we know that stuttering has nothing to do with cognition. There are challenges, of course, but stutterers are just as smart and able as the rest of us.

How should one effectively deal with a stutterer in conversation?

The gut reaction for most people is, "Oh, I should help them finish their sentence." Honestly, that is not the thing to do. It tends to upset the person. It's better to allow him or her to finish talking and then simply respond, whether with a question, answer or comment. It can be difficult, but you have to be patient and allow the person to finish speaking without interruption.

Do you think Colin Firth will win the Oscar for best actor?

Well, he plays an amazing king. He comes off as a very courageous figure fighting to overcome a tremendous obstacle. The character ends the movie with much work left to do in becoming an effective communicator, but his final speech is a remarkable triumph.

Topics: University News, People