Mark, 65 – Dentist & National President of SpeakEasy who has stuttered since childhood, ADELAIDE
Practising dentist, father-to-three, grandfather-to-two, and National President of the Australian SpeakEasy Association (ASEA), Mark, 65, Adelaide began stuttering around three years of age.
His stuttering was so problematic, that at 30 years of age he was still finding it impossible to make a phone call as his speech would completely block for long periods of time.
At age 40, despite having worked towards recovery throughout his life, he was still unable to address an audience without the blocking of his speech and the feeling of absolute dread.
Now 25 years later, Mark’s stutter is almost imperceptible. He exudes much more confidence, and takes every opportunity he can to speak, often at length, with others.
This is Mark’s remarkable story of recovery.
“My parents came home with a tape recorder when I was about four years of age, and recorded me speaking. When I listened to my voice on the tape, that was the first occasion that I identified as someone who stuttered,” said Mark.
“I had a Great Aunt who stuttered, but know of no other family member who stuttered.
“However stuttering is often more than just stumbling over words. It may also be associated with the fear of talking, as well as fear of scrutiny by others. This has a devastating social and emotional impact, limiting quality of life, as well as educational achievement and career functioning,” Mark said.
“People who stutter often avoid, or endure with distress, the making of phone calls and attending social gatherings. They may carry the additional burden of feeling the need to scan sentences ahead and hide stuttering by substituting words mid-sentence. Stuttering for me was all of those things.”
As a child growing up in the 1950s, Mark was expected to “grow out of” his stuttering, and the predominant school of thought at the time was to avoid mentioning the disorder at all.
At four years of age, Mark’s parents accompanied him to speech therapy. He attended speech therapy again at age eight and 12 respectively, but unfortunately continued to stutter.
After graduating from high school, Mark attended university, during which he personally reached out for therapy. He was initially referred to psychiatric therapy, and next to hypnotherapy, and finally back to a speech pathologist, to no avail.
While at university, Mark chose to minimise his engagement with teachers, colleagues and friends in order to mask his stutter.
“I would only speak in phrases, and could hardly ever string two-to-three sentences together. By speaking in short phrases, I was able to disguise the extent of my stuttering,” said Mark.
After graduating with a degree in Dentistry from Adelaide University, Mark began working as a dentist.
His chosen career necessitated patient engagement, and as time progressed, Mark’s level of stuttering fluctuated from patient-to-patient.
“My speech varied so much with each patient I saw. Over time, I started to recognise that my stuttering was based on my interaction with, and perception of, each of my patients.
“After recognising this, I started to think that stuttering may be linked to other psychological conditions, such as social anxiety disorder, so I began to research the topic,” Mark said.
Mark subsequently threw himself into studies in Psychology. In 1992, at age 40, Mark reached out to ASEA, which aims to assist people who stutter, by offering its membership opportunities to practice and hone their speech fluency skills, and to help individuals manage and control their speech in daily situations.
“The two major things that most benefited my stuttering were returning to university and studying Psychology, to understand the role that social anxiety can play in exacerbating a stutter, and completing a four-day-long therapy course, known as the McGuire Programme, with a large group of people who also stuttered.
“During the therapy course my group and I spoke to 100 strangers in the street. Using deliberate or voluntary stuttering, we introduced ourselves, asked for directions, and engaged in general conversation. Later, we gave a public speech in a shopping precinct. These activities serve to overcome fears of stuttering and of speaking to other people, and certainly develop confidence,” said Mark.
Shortly after joining ASEA, Mark was appointed National President of the organisation in 1994.
In his new role, Mark heard a plethora of stuttering-related stories, and quickly determined that for many people, like him, stuttering was made worse by situations of heightened anxiety.
As National President of ASEA, Mark soon became acquainted with other people who stuttered from around the globe.
“It was easy to contact people from all over the world via the internet, and I was hearing so many stories that were similar to my own,” Mark said.
Mark reached out to, and joined the International Stuttering Association (ISA) in 1998 to explore further research on the topic, and in 2001 was appointed International Chair of the ISA.
This role allowed Mark to glean a solid understanding of how stuttering was being treated and viewed internationally. Mark has since introduced various techniques and treatment theories to his peers in Australia. His passion for “self-help” with stuttering saw him join the Self-Help and Advocacy Committee of the International Fluency Association (IFA), to which he was subsequently appointed Committee Chair in 2013 – a role he continues to fulfil today.
“When you live with stuttering, stumbling over words may be only one aspect of disability. There can also be significant anxiety, which culminates in a fear of talking and makes the stuttering worse. The anxiety may be so profound as to warrant a diagnosis of the mental health disability, Social Anxiety Disorder. In this case, one disability is compounding the other.
“I developed the term ‘Stuttered Speech Syndrome’, and a website on the topic – stutteredspeechsyndrome.com – to bring attention to how complex and restricting stuttering can be. The website offers answers to many stuttering-related questions that I experienced, and have been asked by others. It also offers speech therapists strategies for diagnosing and helping patients to overcome Stuttered Speech Syndrome,” said Mark.
“However my key role is President of ASEA. Our organisation aims to raise awareness of stuttering, therapeutic options, and research, as well as strategies to limit, if not overcome, stuttering. Our message to people who stutter is you don’t have to live as a victim.”
Mark is participating in the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence for Speech and Language ‘Genetics of Stuttering Study’, which aims to identify the genetic contributions of stuttering. He hopes his contribution will make a difference to those with lived experience of, or a genetic predisposition to, the disorder.
“It’s unfortunate that stuttering is the last remaining disability that people feel it is okay to laugh at.
“There appears to be a strong genetic link associated with stuttering, so research examining those ties may help to remove its stigma,” Mark said.
“I welcome all forms of research into treating, and managing stuttering, and genuinely hope through this research, we can learn more about stuttering, and offer people who live with stuttering, a better chance of overcoming the disorder.”