September 28, 2016

Musician Helps Kids Who Stutter

  • Early intervention is the key to helping prevent stuttering and speech problems.

For many people, springtime brings hope and joyful anticipation. But for those who struggle with stuttering, the old fears of speaking and being teased are the same in every season.

For children who stutter, a typical school day can be fraught with embarrassing situations.

“Any sort of oral reports or speeches were especially difficult for me,” recalls John Warstler, a speech therapist for the Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle Educational Service District and member of Great Lakes Energy Cooperative. Warstler received speech services throughout his childhood to address a variety of speech disorders, including stuttering. He remembers being relieved when teachers skipped over him for oral reading, even though it caused some embarrassment. He also avoided classes that required public speaking, such as foreign language. “I felt that I had enough difficulties with speaking English,” he says, “so why bother with Spanish?”

Fortunately for Warstler, school was also a place that offered help and support. He received free speech services from kindergarten through third grade, and his stuttering disorder received targeted attention during middle school. That’s when an astute science teacher referred him to the six-week Summer Remedial Speech and Hearing Clinic at Central Michigan University.

“The CMU Clinic was my first real experience working directly on my stuttering and it really helped my attitude towards my stuttering,” Warstler explains. “I was desensitized to many speaking situations that once were very difficult for me.”

It wasn’t until his college years that Warstler became a fluent speaker. But even today, he says his fluency can never be taken for granted, because stuttering can be cyclical and episodic.

“I have learned the tools and I possess the knowledge to be a fluent speaker the majority of the time,” he adds. “However, I am comfortable with who I am and how I speak for the most part.”

Warstler has also devoted much of his life to helping Michigan public school students improve their speech and language skills. Today, he is officially retired, but due to a critical shortage in the field of speech/language pathology, he continues working in public schools two days per week.

Experts say parents should seek help as early as preschool age when their child begins to stutter. Warstler agrees, and reminds parents that all speech/language services are free within public schools. In fact, children are eligible for services whether they attend public, private or charter schools, and even if they are home-schooled. “The earlier the intervention, the greater the likelihood that a child will not develop into a stutterer,” Warstler says.

He recommends parents check out the many resources offered by the Stuttering Foundation of America (see below, left) for preventing or reducing stuttering disorders and learn about related myths and realities. For example, nervousness, anxiety and shyness do not cause stuttering—it’s a myth that needs dispelling, since stutterers have the same range of personality traits as those who don’t stutter. The reality is that no one knows the exact causes, but research shows that genetics, neuromuscular development, and a child’s environment, including family dynamics, all play a role. Showing acceptance of the child, just as he is, is especially important, Warstler emphasizes, and credits his family for building his confidence and supporting his life-long music endeavors.

Today, besides a sucessful career in speech therapy, Warstler is an accomplished guitarist with two recorded CDs, and a third on the way. He also plays nearly every day in the schools where he works.

“Playing guitar put me in a comfort zone and it was very therapeutic,” Warstler explains. “I would say today that music, like my stuttering, is a big part of who I am.”

7 Tips for Parents (or any caring adult)

  1. Speak with your child in an unhurried way, pausing frequently. Wait a few seconds after your child finishes speaking before you begin. Your own slow, relaxed speech will be far more effective than criticism or advice.
  2. Reduce the number of questions you ask. Instead, simply comment on what your child has said.
  3. Pay attention to your child’s message. Use facial expressions and other body language to show you are listening to what your child says, not how he is talking.
  4. Set aside a few minutes daily to give your child undivided attention. This quiet, calm time is a confidence-builder for younger children.
  5. Help all family members learn to take turns talking and listening. Children, especially those who stutter, find it much easier to talk when there are few interruptions.
  6. Observe the way you interact. Increase the times that give your child the message that you are listening and he has plenty of time to talk.
  7. Above all, convey that you accept your child as he is. The most powerful force is your support, whether your child stutters or not!

Resources:

  • The Stuttering Foundation offers a free brochure, “If You Think Your Child Is Stuttering,” at 800-992-9392 or stutteringhelp.org
  • John Warstler can be contacted through his website at hymnsonguitar.com
  • CMU Summer Remedial Speech and Hearing Clinic: Contact the Carls Center at (989) 774-3904 or visit cmich.edu

Linda Wacyk