About the presenters: Sophie Bell Sacca lives in New York City, has an engineering degree and a law degree, and currently works in legal publishing. She has stuttered for over twenty-seven years, but it was not until two years ago, in the summer of 2000, that she realized there were other people out there with the same speech problem as hers. Now, she wishes there were more she could do to help fellow PWSs.

David and Nicola Bell, who are enjoying retirement in Arizona, are Sophie's parents neither of whom stutter or had any experience with the affliction before Sophie came along.

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the authors before October 22, 2002.

Parents: A Source of Comfort and Support

by Sophie Bell Sacca, David Bell and Nicola Bell
from New York and Arizona, USA

My father always used to say, "A problem shared is a problem halved." While I am not sure he was ever referring to a particular problem when he said this, it has definitely proven true for my stutter.

From what I remember, I started having trouble with my speech when I was about six or seven. For the first few years, it was more of a nuisance than a problem. Then when I was nine, almost ten, I was given a lead part in the school play, and my teacher happened to be the director for the play.

My stutter was not a problem on stage. In fact, that was probably one of the reasons I enjoyed acting so much --- it was an escape from the nuisance of my speech impediment. Unfortunately, my teacher did not understand how everyday speaking and acting on stage could be unrelated, so whenever I stuttered in class, she would shout at me to stop and threaten to take my part away. I quickly learned that stuttering was not acceptable behavior and must be avoided under all circumstances.

For fear of making my teacher even angrier with me, I decided not to tell my parents about her means of dealing with my speech. To this day, I regret not saying something to them. I am certain my teacher would have behaved differently if she had understood stuttering better. In fact, perhaps subconsciously I learned my lesson, because after that, I always turned to my parents whenever I was upset about my speech.

I have no idea how my parents managed it, but they always said the right things. Once, I came home determined to perfect the passage I would have to read in class the next day, only to end up in tears as I realized how many words were going to give me trouble. Upon learning of my dilemma, my mother proceeded to explain that my speech was not nearly as noticeable to everyone else as it was to me and that the other children in the class would be more concerned about their own problems than my speech. My father then offered his advice: Sure, the children might tease me about my speech, but if I did not have this speech problem, they would find something else to tease me about, and besides, most of them would not be listening during class anyway. Even though I still dreaded having to read in class, hearing their perspectives on the situation made it seem much more doable.

Another time, I forced myself to enter a local speech contest. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still perform in front of an audience. Unfortunately, on the day of the contest, I stuttered on the title of the piece and broke down in tears. My parents came to the rescue with their usual supportive words of wisdom. This time, though, I thought I needed to do something to fix my speech, so my mother arranged for me to see the school speech language pathologist (SLP). But when the SLP focused solely on which words and situations gave me trouble and did not offer any advice on how to correct my speech, my parents unquestioningly deferred to my decision to stop seeing her.

Later, in high school, I forced myself to audition for a school play, thinking that perhaps being on a real stage, rather than giving a speech at the front of a classroom, I would still be free from my stutter. I got the part I wanted, but in order to say one of my lines, I had to stick in an "uh"between the words "do"and "you,"so it came out "do uh you." At one of the rehearsals, a cast member noticed the inappropriately placed "uh"and had the whole cast rolling in laughter. I was so humiliated, but I tried to laugh it off --- at least until I got home.

My parents came to the rescue again. They consoled me for over an hour trying to impress upon me that it was just one line, and if I explained to the director about my speech, she might be able to do something about it. I was convinced it was the end of the world, though, and insisted there was nothing anyone could do to fix the situation. I knew I would always stutter on that line, and I could not understand how I could continue to play the part. My mother gently suggested that I drop out of the play if I was not going to enjoy it. I was mortified by the idea of giving up the part I loved, but deep down inside, it was a huge relief to have her suggest that as an option. Of course, then I needed reassurance that I was not being a quitter, which my parents quickly gave me --- as if they were reading my mind.

I did quit the play, but it instilled in me another urge to try to fix my speech. So this time, my mother arranged for me to see a private SLP. This SLP taught me several tricks to conceal my "block,"as she called it --- word substitution, blowing puffs of air, etc. The tricks did help, but seeing someone about my speech made me focus constantly on how I talked and that seemed to make my speech worse. So, once again, my parents patiently deferred to my choice to stop the therapy.

As I got older, my frustrations with my speech intensified. Why did I have this speech problem? How did it start? Why couldn't I just stop stuttering? My parents' pep talks continued. For hours on end, my parents would listen to me rant on about my speech and would patiently offer suggestions and encouragement. Much to my dismay, they surmised that my speech difficulties might stay with me for the rest of my life, but that I would probably find a way to live with them. They assured me that my stutter would cease to be a problem when I stopped getting upset about it. To my parents, accepting my speech seemed to be the answer. Even though I found their theories somewhat disturbing, these talks always made me feel better. It was as if my speech was a giant weight, and they were sharing the load.

Furthermore, I am slowly beginning to realize that everything they said is true. My speech is more noticeable and more of a problem to me than it is to anyone else. Other people are more worried about their own problems than they are about my speech. Had I not stuttered, the kids at school would have found something else to tease me about (probably my big, ugly feet). My speech difficulties most likely will stay with me for the rest of my life. And, for me at least, acceptance does appear to be the answer. The less I fight my speech and the less I see my stutter as a problem, the happier I am and the better my speech is.

To this day, I still have no idea how my parents knew what to say to make me feel better. But, somehow they did ease my anxiety. And, between you and me, I still call them when I have a bad speech day, even though I am 33 years old.

The Parents' Perspective (David and Nicola Bell):

The Dilemma

When Sophie was five or six years old, we noticed that when explaining something, she appeared at times to be unable to get words out quickly enough -- as though her brain were racing ahead of her ability to say what she wanted. At first, this happened only occasionally but, as the weeks and months went by, we noticed it more frequently. Friends we talked to said it was a common phenomenon at Sophie's age, and probably she would grow out of it.

She didn't; rather, it happened more often, until we came to see that Sophie had developed a "stutter"of some sort. Inevitably, Sophie herself soon became aware that sometimes she couldn't say sentences smoothly, and this frustrated her. However, she talked fluently enough if she didn't think about her speech, and so it seemed to us that the less we drew attention to it, the better.

Weeks, if not months, would go by during which Sophie neither stuttered nor mentioned stuttering, until something would remind her of her speech, and she would block on a word. Then for a while she would stutter rather frequently, until (it seemed to us) she forgot about it again.

As Sophie entered her teens, social pressures exacerbated the problem. She began to talk to us openly about it, and we could tell that it was on her mind most of the time. She started to have trouble with certain letters, though over the months and years those letters changed. She learned to substitute words if she felt a "difficult"letter coming, but that of course didnít work for names and places. Phone calls, since they involve saying names, became particularly difficult.

Our Approach

In the early years, we never drew attention to Sophie's speech. We did not suggest taking her to see a speech therapist because we thought this would set in her mind that she had a problem. We sought professional help only on the two occasions when she asked us if anything could be done; the therapists did not cure the stutter. The second one taught Sophie some "tricks" to help conceal it.

Once we saw that Sophie was bothered by her speech, we tried hard to counter her anxiety by impressing on her that it didn't sound as bad to others as it did to her. By extension, this meant that we did not let her speech affect anything she wanted to do. For example, if she wanted to try out for a part in a play --- more power to her. On the other hand, we didn't suggest that she take on challenges to overcome her speech. In other words, we took the cues from her. More often than not, she did not take the easy way out but went out of her way to prove that she could do this or that in spite of the stutter, and we encouraged her every time.

We still do not know whether ours was the best approach. Certainly, in the beginning we had no idea what lay ahead and how Sophie's speech would weigh on her more as she grew older. Had we known this, would we have acted differently? In the absence of a sure-fire set of instructions, probably not.

Authors' Note: The experiences with speech therapy described in this paper are not representative of present-day speech therapy. The treatment options that are available for children who stutter now are better than those that were available when Sophie was growing up. We are encouraged that there is now so much more information available for parents of children who stutter and that speech language pathologists are being provided with better information as well.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the authors before October 22, 2002.

August 18, 2002