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Guilt trips even afflict English kings

Retired UW-River Falls speech professor Jerry Halvorson has taught, counseled and written for decades on the subject of stuttering. That was the theme for the Oscar-winning movie "The King's Speech." Halvorson, who now lives on a horse farm on the Trimbelle River in rural Pierce County, has a doctorate in speech therapy from the University of Minnesota. Photo by Phil Pfuehler

Local stuttering expert Jerry Halvorson agrees that "The King's Speech" deserved best-picture Oscar for exposing a condition that brings humiliation and is stigmatized, misunderstood and mistreated.

Like the stammering King George VI in the movie, the problem begins early in life, usually before a child starts school. Repressed guilt and shame fan the speech impediments.

However, Halvorson claims that stuttering is not a problem. It's only made a problem by the reactions and attempts to help those who are close to the young stutterer.

"In real simple terms, stuttering doesn't exist," Halvorson says. "It's almost a figment of our imagination. The harder parents and others try to correct a child's speech, and the harder that child tries to spit the words out, the worse it all becomes. Correction leads to digging a deeper hole."

The simplest solution to youthful stuttering, Halvorson asserts, is to ignore it.

"You've got to have a 'I don't give a (rip)' attitude," he said, using an unprintable word for this newspaper. "That casual approach will do more help than anything."

Halvorson, 70, was a speech professor/clinician at UW-River Falls from 1968-2000. Even in retirement he teaches a related class at UW-RF in behavior modification, part of the communicative disorders curriculum.

For many years Halvorson has mentored a monthly stuttering group meeting on campus. About 20 people typically join him for each meeting.

SGM is for adult and older teenage stutterers, along with parents of stuttering children.

Halvorson said that statistically, worldwide, boys and men make up the majority of stutterers.

"Boys develop slower in language usage and, in general, physiologically," Halvorson said. "They are slower to talk. Their way of managing anxiety and stress is to externalize it, trying to force the words out. That can lead to stuttering."

Halvorson also treats what he calls a "related cousin to stuttering" -- those afraid to speak in front of people.

Halvorson said babies aren't born as stutterers but may be predisposed.

"It starts around ages three or four, and you're more likely to see it with a child who is extra sensitive," Halvorson said. "Kids are learning to speak at that age. They make mistakes, get stuck with words, with pronunciations. Listeners around them pick up on that and correct them.

"That correcting seems like the right thing to do, but the exact opposite is true. Correction heightens the problem of stuttering.

"For the person stuttering, the harder you try not to stutter, the more you make mistakes. You get more tense in your throat and lungs, your fingers and toes may curl up. There's tension and tightening throughout your body. All that affects your speech."

Halvorson says a judgmental environment turns stuttering in the formative years into a lifelong chronic condition.

In "The King's Speech," the young English king-to-be is berated by his father as he becomes hopelessly tongue-tied while practicing before a microphone.

Halvorson said the psychological component of stuttering has been compared to an iceberg where 90 percent of the icy mass lurks below the water's surface.

Halvorson said there's plenty of quack therapy marketed at stutterers. He said this includes window dressing to conceal symptoms and quick fixes that rely on mechanistic techniques.

Back in the 1960s when he was a student at the University of Minnesota, Halvorson said some stutterers were subjected to electric shock treatments.

A key to success, Halvorson said, is a "good, friendly working relationship between the client and therapist."

While it didn't start that way, such turned out to be the case in "The King's Speech."

An unorthodox speech therapist, Lionel Logue, got the very proper, uptight king to loosen up to such an extent that Logue could call the king by his secret nickname, "Birdie."

As the friendship and trust matured, the king's confidence and speaking ability improved.

Halvorson said his therapy for stutterers relies on peeling back layers of negative feelings, from anger and frustration, to expose the core issue.

"And that's usually deep shame," he said. "To reach this understanding can take years."

Halvorson said youngsters who stutter have gotten "lumped into special needs" programs. While the stigma is less overt today, Halvorson said it often goes "covert," which only leads to more repression and guilt.

"What the realistically portrayed movie, 'The King's Speech,' has done is brought the whole issue out into the public's eye," he said. "Hopefully that brings greater awareness and understanding."

Interestingly, Halvorson said "over acceptance and sympathy" for young stutterers have the same detrimental effects as criticism and correction.

"Saying that it's all right to the child, that he shouldn't feel bad about stuttering, that there's nothing wrong with it only calls attention to his speech and makes him feel abnormal," Halvorson said.

Halvorson, a father of five adult children, said the best approach for stuttering is the same approach he advocates for parenting.

"Be kind to yourself and to your children," he said. "Don't be judgmental, especially about the way they talk. Even with sassing and bad words, don't restrict them with boundaries. It works best to lead by example.

"Stuttering isn't a life-or-death issue. It's just words, so don't judge the way your kids talk. Let them be uninhibited. Whether it's the way they enunciate, articulate, or the way they express themselves, even with profanity, turn a child loose and forget about them."

For questions about stuttering or Jerry Halvorson's Stuttering Group Meetings, call Dori Holte at (651) 257-9635, (651) 210-1614, or contact her at