A lifelong stutterer, Geoff Coalson vividly remembers the first time he attended a National Stuttering Association meeting 10 years ago in Austin, Texas.
“It took me three times to actually go into the room,” Coalson said. “I would drive there and turn around and drive back, because I didn’t want to be a person who stutters. You don’t want to assume that identity, and the minute you go in that door, you’re a person who stutters. ... I think that’s a critical threshold to break.”
Coalson realizes better than most why it’s hard. He has a doctorate in communication disorders and directs the LSU Stuttering Lab, which treats adult stutterers and researches this poorly understood disorder. But the road to overcoming it often begins with that step.
And it's a step he's hoping others who stutter will take at 7 p.m. Wednesday when the NSA’s Baton Rouge Chapter holds an open house at the East Baton Rouge Parish Main Library, 7711 Goodwood Blvd.
“People out in the community who stutter often don’t know there’s anybody else in the world who stutters,” Coalson said.
About 5 percent of children stutter, Coalson said, and 80 percent of them grow out of it.
But that leaves 1 percent who don’t, he said, and they’re often the only person they know who has this speaking problem. It hinders them socially and vocationally. It leads them to order items based on what words they can say rather than what they actually want. It even affects them when no one is around.
“People who stutter get no respite,” Coalson said. “They feel like they can’t talk. They’re afraid of talking, and they’re also afraid of not talking, being too quiet, because they’re not participating in life, and they’re just thinking about the possibility of the next time that they talk, so there’s not even a respite in silence. So, they’re stuck.”
Coalson established the LSU Stuttering Lab when he arrived at the university in 2014. It works with the LSU Speech, Language and Hearing Clinic in Hatcher Hall, and it mostly sees adult clients. A graduate student, Shelly Treleaven, and about 10 undergraduate students assist him. Coalson said he sees about 24 new adult clients each semester.
Exactly why people stutter is unknown. Stuttering affects males more often than females, and those who stutter tend to be related to others who stutter.
As it’s understood now, stuttering involves a disconnect between the parts of the brain that prepare speech and the parts of the brain that control motor movements, Coalson said.
But there are different types and severities of stuttering, and LSU’s lab is researching as well as treating clients. It requires an interdisciplinary approach.
“There’s nothing that’s less understood than how we produce speech as a human, and we knew even less about how it goes awry,” Coalson said. “When you think about the speed in which you get from concept to stuff coming out of your mouth, it is flawless, typically, and it’s remarkable. To look at it from just one domain is not going to work.”
There are, however, some things they know don’t cause stuttering. It has nothing to do with intelligence, and it isn’t caused by anxiety, despite the number of well-meaning people who urge their stuttering friends to relax and take their time.
So, the lab’s approach is not merely to teach techniques that reduce stuttering. Coalson also seeks go give his clients “permission to stutter in the world” while improving their fluency.
“It’s a hard sell,” he said. “People who stutter just want the magic pill. Me, too. There’s not one. If there was one, I’d be happy to endorse it.”
How can people help their friends who stutter?
Primarily, it’s by what they don’t do, Coalson said. Don’t finish their sentences. Don’t tell them to relax and take their time. It doesn’t help.
Coalson recalled watching the 2010 movie, “The King’s Speech,” which recounted the struggles that faced Prince Albert of Great Britain when he was forced to take the throne as King George VI but had a severe, persistent stutter.
“It was a very interesting experience for me, because I got to sit among people who don’t stutter as the person on the screen was struggling through giving a speech,” Coalson said. “It was uncomfortable for everybody and painful for everybody in the audience, and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what it’s like.’”