UT camp helps kids with stutters find their voice

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A week-long summer program at the University of Texas at Austin is helping kids with stutters become better communicators.

Now in its fifth year, Camp Dream. Speak. Live., a product of UT’s Lang Stuttering Institute, takes a different approach to therapy. Instead of working with children to change their speech patterns to overcome stutters, the program instills campers with the confidence to find their voice.

“It’s not about the fluency of what you say,” said Courtney Byrd, founding director of the Lang Institute, “it’s about what it is that you most want to share and not being afraid to do so.”

Wednesday, kids wrote speeches about what they want people to know about stuttering. The group paraded — led by a drum line — from the Recreational Sports Center to the courtyard outside Cypress Bend, a cafe on UT’s campus.

There, they set up a small speaker and microphone, and the kids took turns speaking to the crowd and to anyone passing by.

“You can still be a strong communicator, even if you have a speech impediment or if you stutter,” said Juell Reed, an Austin 11-year-old at the camp.

The rising 7th grader is enjoying his time with his fellow campers. “I’m surrounded by people who are just like me and I know who won’t judge me.”

The speech he wrote focused on two things: that stuttering is not contagious, and that people who stutter are just as smart as people who don’t. Both of those are key pieces of what the camp teaches, including the reasons people stutter in the first place.

“We also teach them how to advocate for themselves,” Byrd said. “So we explain to them how people perceive them, or, rather, mis-perceive them because they stutter, and we teach them how to talk with people about it.”

Roughly 3 million Americans stutter, occurring most often in kids between the ages of 2 and 6 as they’re learning to speak, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), a division of the National Institutes of Health. As many as 1-in-10 kids will stutter at some point in their lives.

Researchers are still studying how stuttering starts. Genetic factors play a role in developmental stuttering, one of two types of stuttering identified by NIDCD, research shows, but there are other components that contribute. The other form, neurogenic stuttering, can occur after a brain injury, like a stroke or head trauma.

Regardless of the cause, the camp at UT encourages kids to understand their own speech patterns better and to communicate that information to people who don’t understand.

Speakers outside the cafe started by introducing themselves and self-identifying as someone who stutters. “So you may hear some things that are just stopped or just repeated,” one camper explained to the crowd.

“It’s okay to stutter,” another child said into the mic. “You can’t control stuttering.”

One by one, kids from just a few years old to teenagers took the microphone, found their voices, and told the campus and the world: Listen up.

“When I stutter, it’s not because I had a bad morning. It’s not because I forgot the words I say. It is not because I’m a nervous wreck. When I stutter, it’s just me trying to get the words out,” one participant said. “All I want you to do is just wait for me to finish my sentence, and look me in the eye, and speak back to me.”

The crowd cheered after each child finished his or her speech, some reading from the notes they’d written earlier, some speaking off the cuff, some nervous, some more comfortable in front of a large crowd.

It was a good exercise, Juell said. He stood up and told everyone within earshot, “It doesn’t mean that you’re not as smart as everyone else. You are just as smart, or even smarter, than other people.”

He hopes to take what he’s learning this week back to school with him when he starts 7th grade in the fall. “I think that people who stutter are the same as everybody else,” he said, “and should be treated the same.”

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