Claude Lewis

is a longtime Philadelphia journalist

This is Stuttering Awareness Week, and it's a very worthy thing to stay aware of. It afflicts many people, and new avenues of help and hope are available for many of those searching for solutions.

The list of people who stutter or who have experienced stuttering is long and winding. It includes some of the most famous and accomplished as well as the anonymous and obscure.

Stuttering has afflicted gifted individuals ranging from golfer Tiger Woods to actress Marilyn Monroe to statesman and orator Winston Churchill to 20/20 coanchor John Stossel and actor James Earl Jones. Charles Darwin, the British naturalist and author of The Origin of Species, was afflicted; so was King George VI.

Stuttering, or as the British prefer, stammering, can pose problems for the young as well as the mature. For whatever reason, the communication disorder afflicts males at four times the rate of females. It bears no relation to ability or intelligence. In the United States, approximately three million people (1 percent of the population) are chronically affected, with the flow of speech broken by repetitions (li-li-like this), stretched syllables (lllllike this), or unusual sounds, syllables or stoppages (absence of any sound). Despite mammoth research, many of the underlying causes remain unknown.

The Stuttering Foundation of America and the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering Children have formed a transatlantic alliance to help researchers, clinicians and children. Palin, a British comedian and Monty Python member, allowed the center to be named after him after his performance in the movie A Fish Called Wanda, in which he portrayed a charismatic character, called Ken, who stuttered. The center is one of the premier treatment centers in the world for childhood stuttering and is active in research and in the training of speech therapists.

The Stuttering Foundation, located in Memphis, was established in 1947. It is a nonprofit organization that assists, advises and provides educational materials and a nationwide list of speech therapists for those troubled by stuttering. The foundation's toll-free number is 1-800-992-9392.

Jane Fraser, president of the foundation, encourages parents, therapists and others to use its Web site, www.stutteringhelp.org, from which material on stuttering can be downloaded and where DVDs are available for viewing.

The Web site is not a substitute for therapy, but it does provide the advantage of immediate information and guidance - often a crucial element in helping parents maintain momentum in seeking therapy for their children.

Stuttering is often seen in young children, and some researchers believe it may even be a natural part of speech development. Often, children simply outgrow the problem after a few months. But if stuttering persists into the teen years, therapy is often recommended before the problem becomes chronic.

Fraser advises those concerned with the problem to "take a second look at what's available to help." While there is no magic means of curing stuttering overnight, she says, "progress is definitely being made on several fronts."

Drugs designed to reduce stuttering's social and psychological effects are being developed along with electronic devices that may help some people. There is some concern among people who insist that the long-term effects of new developments are largely unknown. But Fraser says she has seen lives changed dramatically.

The following tips for teachers with students who stutter in class are sensible and compassionate - and they suggest ways we non-teachers can treat people who stutter:

Don't tell the stuttering child to slow down or "relax." Speak with the student in an unhurried way, pausing frequently. Don't complete words for the child or talk for him or her. Hold high expectations for the child who stutters. Expect the same quality and quantity of work from a student who stutters as from one who does not. Discuss needed accommodations in the classroom. Respect the student's needs, but do not be enabling.

Stuttering hasn't stopped many of the most talented people on Earth. Progress and education are helping to remove many of the obstacles that once stopped those challenged by speech disfluency from accomplishing their goals.

Contact Claude Lewis at clewis97@ptd.net.