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Tears, Cheers, the Latest Research for Stutterers at O.C. Conference


What would be a simple speech for many was filled with landmines for Kevin Murphy, a gangly college student from Boise, Idaho.

"It seems like it was yesterday that I first sat in this workshop," Murphy told a packed ballroom Friday afternoon--fighting through "seems" and "yesterday," wrestling with "sat" and stumbling over "this."

For once, there were no nasty snickers or uncomfortable stares when he spoke. Only warm smiles, on his face and nearly a hundred others.

Murphy joined nearly 500 others in Anaheim this weekend for the National Stuttering Assn.'s annual conference, a three-day gathering of parents, therapists and stutterers of every race and ethnicity seeking camaraderie, support and news on the latest research.

The highlight of each morning is the "open microphone," when stutterers step before a packed house and mow down the granddaddy of all fears: public speaking.

"There are a lot of tears and cheers," said Jim McClure, a public relations consultant from Chicago who has come to the conferences for more than a decade. "It's just a real high to meet people just like you. They've been through it all; they have the same fears. You come here and realize--'Hey, I'm not crazy.' "

An estimated 1% of Americans stutter and, along with dealing with occasional tormentors and their own insecurities, many must overcome common misconceptions that stuttering is attributed to stupidity, nervousness or some mental disorder. Or worse.

"My mother was told by our pediatrician I stuttered because she stopped breastfeeding too soon," said Annie Bradberry, the association's executive director. "She walked around for years thinking that she was to blame."

The association has been struggling to eradicate such speculation by educating the public, especially the medical community and the parents of children who stutter, Bradberry said.

It's a difficult task because health care grants and federal funding for research and education are funneled toward disorders that are more common or better known. Insurance rarely covers the cost of speech therapy. Although therapy is provided in most public school systems, many of the therapists have no experience or training in stuttering, said Joe Donaher, coordinator of the stuttering program at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Researchers theorize that stuttering springs from multiple causes, ranging from brain chemistry to heredity to environmental factors.

"There is no 100%-agreed-upon cause for stuttering," Donaher said. "There's so much involved in speech--cognition, emotion--it can be disrupted in a variety of ways."

The biggest danger is to ignore it, Donaher said.

"Even today we have pediatricians telling parents, don't worry, the kid will grow out of it," Donaher said. "Early intervention is critical. The longer you let a child struggle with it, the more involved it may become."

People who stutter learn to cope by avoiding words that trip them up or skirting high-pressure situations, from simple telephone conversations to job interviews. Those bad habits become more and more difficult to untangle as stutterers grow into adulthood, he said.

When Stephanie Nicolai started at a new junior high school in Ontario, she begged her teachers not to call on her in class or force her to read aloud--at least until she had time to adjust. When other students became jealous, unaware she stuttered, she wrote a paper on her stuttering and read it aloud in English class.

"No one is perfect. This is just my imperfection," said Stephanie, 13, who sports the braces and fashion of a typical teenager. "People used to tease me about it, but now most people understand I'm not doing it on purpose."

Stephanie attended her first conference for people who stutter two years ago, and she said it was the first time she began to accept her affliction and not let it define her.

People nearly always begin stuttering between the ages of 2 and 4. About 60% of children outgrow it by puberty, suggesting an association with brain development. The disorder affects four times as many males as females.

Innovations in therapy and medicine are providing new hope.

At UC Irvine, psychiatry professor Dr. Gerald Maguire has been a pioneer in searching the brain for the sources of stuttering and in using drugs to control the disorder.

He performed the first brain scans on stutterers. They showed that when levels of the chemical dopamine were reduced through drug therapy, activity in a deep portion of the brain increased and stuttering decreased.

"Not to say this is the end-all in stuttering research," Maguire said. "Not all treatments work for all people.... We need to look at a variety of approaches."

That includes both medicine and speech therapy, and especially the two used together, he said.

The increased emphasis on stuttering therapy and research is a marked change from when Randy Hoover attended grammar school in the 1970s.

"Back then, I don't think they knew what to do with us," said Hoover, a mechanical engineer for Boeing who lives in Anaheim.

Hoover put off speech therapy for years until an incident at work. Working for Rockwell, he was talking to a vendor on the telephone when he got caught on the word "Rockwell," causing a long silence. The vendor hung up on him.

He went to a speech therapist that month. In 1998, at a National Stuttering Assn. convention in Atlanta, Hoover appeared on CNN.

"It was cool. I stuttered. I didn't care."

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