Approximately 3 million people in the United States stutter. Teens who stutter are especially at risk for reduced self-esteem, social struggles and speech-related avoidance patterns.
In an effort to help youth who stutter through this critical stage, the Center for Childhood Communication has run the Woody Starkweather Intensive Stuttering Program since June 2001. The program, which is aimed at teens who stutter and their families, returned in a hybrid form in 2022 to make the most of both in-person and virtual opportunities. This included 10 hours of in-person engagement with the teens in Ardmore, Pa., and three evenings of virtual programming for them and their families. Two speech language pathologists, 12 teens and 11 adults who stutter serving as guest speakers and mentors made the program a success.
More than 100 children and teens who stutter have participated in the program over the past 11 years. Some participants have returned multiple times as they reach different stages of their journey to learn about stuttering, accept themselves, manage their communication experiences and connect with others who stutter.
During this year’s program, held June 21 – 30, they asked questions, shared fears, encouraged risks, reflected on awkward situations, talked about responses to teasing, suggested avenues for advocacy and engaged in dialogue facilitated by members of CHOP’s Stuttering Program. Joseph Donaher, PhD, CCC-SLP, and I provided a curriculum designed to promote communication success.
Virtual sessions came first
The teens met virtually leading up to the in-person portion of the program. Then they spent two full days engaged in discussions, meeting guest speakers, working through facilitated topics and socializing during breaks and over lunch. The days were followed by additional virtual programming the following week to include guest speakers and participants’ families.
- A 14-year-old shared how since his first time participating in the program at 10 years old, he has since taken the reins of his own communication by ordering for himself in restaurants with confidence, rather than shying away from speaking for fear of stuttering.
- A 16-year-old told how she educates those around her by writing letters to her teachers about her stuttering and how they can best respond when she gets stuck.
- A 23-year-old shared how he handled a hurtful comment about his stuttering from a close friend.
- A 13-year-old received applause, encouragement and praise following a 30-second block as he attempted to introduce himself and got stuck saying his name.
- A 10-year-old asked and got thoughtful and variable answers to the question, “Should we talk slow?”
Guest speakers shared struggles, successes
Guest speakers were adults who stutter and included an Air Force marshal, a CHOP neurogeneticist, a real estate developer, a lawyer and a local politician. They all shared that even in the presence of success and confidence, stuttering is a lifelong journey that includes struggle and challenge. Most importantly, they stressed that success and struggle aren’t mutually exclusive. In most cases, the struggle builds resilience and grit to use stuttering as a point of strength, growth and empathetic awareness surrounding diversity.
The experience recalls a famous line from the movie The Breakfast Club: “You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is …”
And so much more.
I think we all have a lot to learn from people who stutter. We just have to listen.