by Jessie Davies
A recent study by Professor Mark Onslow, Director of the Australian Stuttering Research Centre at the University of Sydney, has shown that alarming rates of young students suffer from severe stuttering, and may suffer from anxiety as a result.
He says the social anxieties resulting from stuttering can lay the groundwork for under-achievement at school and reduced employment outcomes later in life.
Professor Onslow estimates that as many as one child in every Australian classroom suffers from the disorder but often go unheeded. “Children who stutter in primary school often go undetected as they sit in class and avoid saying anything, effectively disappearing into the background.”
Sydney postgraduate student Caroline Geroyan, 23, knows what it’s like to be the stutterer in the class. When she was 10, she developed the disorder which, she says, made her feel like a different person.
“I’m naturally an outspoken person, so when I developed my stutter all of a sudden, I couldn’t speak properly and that really affected me. Unless I knew exactly what I was going to say, I wouldn’t talk,” she says.
Caroline experienced anxiety, especially when asked to contribute to class activities. “I hated reading in class. If I stuttered on a word, then it became worse and worse. I was so harsh on myself back then; I was my own worst critic,” she says.
Peter Kingston, from the Australian Speak Easy Association, a nation-wide support group for people who stutter, says that while it certainly isn’t easy for children, adults suffer from the disorder, too.
“Before I learnt to manage my stutter, tackling everyday tasks could be daunting. I used to hate introducing myself to people, answering questions, and using the phone,” he says.
At Speak Easy, Peter helps run monthly support meetings for people who stutter. The idea of the meeting is to provide a forum for participants to practice the speech techniques that have been taught to them by speech pathologists.
“The problem with stuttering is there is no cure. Basically, you have to do your fluency practice every time you speak. In our meetings, we try to practice this through group discussions and impromptu speeches. The practice does imbue you with a feeling of confidence, and the more confidence you have, the level of anxiety you have goes down,” he says.
With the level of competition in today’s job market, Peter says that managing one’s anxiety is crucial in order to make the most of potential opportunities.
“These days it is so difficult to get a job, there’s a lot of competition out there. For one job, there could be 100 others going for it and that’s why I always underline how important it is to get treatment and to practice, practice, practice. If you leave it, it will only get worse and limit your opportunities,” says Peter.
In his 30 years at Speak Easy, Peter has met many people whose hard work has paid off. “We have had many successful people come through who haven’t let their stutter stop them. We have had engineers, doctors and barristers, to name a few.”
Similarly, Caroline Geroyan didn’t let her disorder get in the way of her success. In senior high school, Caroline entered the Sydney Morning Herald Plain English Speaking Award and won.
“Winning the competition made me feel very proud, very accomplished. It was a blessing because it gave me a lot of confidence. I thought, ‘I can do this! If I can speak in front of 1000 people, I can speak in front of my friends’.”