This spring, Boris Iyutin will earn a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and enter the job market, but not as a physicist. Instead he will be looking for work in finance. Why? Because Iyutin stutters, and physics terms can’t often be replaced by synonyms that are easier to say, his usual means of sidestepping his speech impediment.
“A proton is a proton,” says 31-year-old Iyutin, who spent seven years thousands of miles from his native Russia to earn his doctorate, including four years studying proton beam collisions at the Fermilab in Illinois.
But for the last few months, with help from a weekly meeting at Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Iyutin has been working to reduce his stuttering. Every Tuesday evening, he joins about 20 others who stutter for a workshop presided over by two Sargent faculty, Adriana DiGrande, a lecturer in speech, language, and hearing sciences, and Diane Parris, a clinical associate professor. A handful of graduate students also help facilitate. Some who attend the group have trouble with vowels, some with consonants, and some encounter more random “speech blocks,” when their voices simply stop working. They meet to discuss their progress toward more fluent speech and to work on personal goals. Mostly, they come for support from others who know that the real impact of stuttering is not stammering or stumbling over words; the real impact of stuttering is silence.
“People who stutter spend a lot of energy trying to hide their stuttering,” says DiGrande. They refrain from making phone calls or speaking up at work or in social settings, practices known collectively as “avoidance behaviors.” For example, one Tuesday evening attendee, 26-year-old Ravi Patel, remembers that in school, “I never raised my hand in class, even if I wanted to ask a question or knew the answer.”
About 3.3 percent of children stutter, according to the National Stuttering Association, and for most of them, the trouble starts with their first attempts at speech. Because most kids who stutter grow out of it, many parents don’t seek treatment for them, in the hope that the impediment will go away on its own. As a result, avoidance behaviors can become entrenched in the one percent of adults who continue to stutter.
Those who have been stuttering for a long time must learn to take risks, says DiGrande. She and Parris encourage group members to confront the silences and the fear and shame that lead to them. At a recent meeting, for instance, participants are asked to make impromptu speeches and then field questions from their audience.
Most of them have already had other speech therapy. Many have been through the New England Fluency Program run by DiGrande, where participants are asked to make scores of phone calls, analyze videotapes of themselves speaking, and do daily work on “fluency shaping” strategies, such as coordinating breath with speech, relaxing speech muscles, and maintaining “light contact” at the lips and tongue.
For this meeting, one by one they pick from a hat a quotation to be the theme of their talk. Then each speaker announces what fluency technique he or she will practice during the impromptu speech. “I’m going to stretch my first sounds,” reports one speaker. “My goals are to speak at a lower rate and to monitor my breathing as I speak,” says another.
While stuttering sometimes runs in families, there is no single cause, says DiGrande. “It could be neurological, it could be chemical, it could be genetic,” she says. But the psychological component cannot be ignored. That sentiment, expressed in a quote by the late speech-language pathologist Charles Van Riper, inspires one of the evening’s final impromptu speeches: “Stuttering is everything you do trying not to stutter.”
That “everything” includes seeking refuge in silence. For Iyutin, the challenge of speaking has pulled him away from the science he’s pursued for much of his adult life. On the other hand, it has also pushed him into activities where vocal fluency isn’t so important. Specifically, Iyutin started competing in ballroom dancing — samba, rumba, mambo, and other Latin dances — when he came to the United States. It was an easy way to meet people, since, as he says, “When I dance, I don’t have to talk.”
Near the close of the meeting, one of the talks is about motivation, and the participants share their reasons for joining the Tuesday session. A law professor about to return to the classroom from a sabbatical says he wanted to “prepare and get into habits that will allow me to avoid speech blocks” during lectures. Another participant notes, “I see coming here as doing something positive for ourselves, being proactive rather than sitting back, afraid of our next stutter.”
Chris Berdik can be reached at email@example.com.