New Film Focuses on Stuttering

USF experts say The King’s Speech may help bring attention to an affliction that can be treated.


By Barbara Melendez News Writer


TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 20, 2010) – A new film promises to increase awareness about a condition that affects millions of Americans – stuttering – or stammering as the British call it.  And experts on stuttering from the University of South Florida and the local National Stuttering Association chapter are scheduled to be part of a panel discussion on the topic following a special screening at the Tampa Theatre Dec. 30 following the 7:30 p.m. screening. The film opens on Christmas Day. 


The King’s Speech, starring Colin Firth, tells the story of Prince Albert‘s transition from life as the unprepossessing sibling of King Edward VIII, to world leader as King George VI – father of Queen Elizabeth. The main character of The King’s Speech was something of an unlikely understudy who never expected to get the leading role in what turned out to be a drama of monumental proportions – World War II.  His older brother King Edward VIII became the Duke of Windsor when he gave up the throne in 1936 to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson. 


Considered the not-so-bright one, Bertie, as he was called, had worked with speech therapists throughout his life, but repeated failures undermined the confidence he would need once he was thrust upon the world stage and expected to deliver inspiring and comforting radio addresses to his war-torn nation.  It is his work with an Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, portrayed in the film by Geoffrey Rush, that many hope will bring a new understanding and empathy for those who live with this poorly understood speech problem.


Approximately one per cent of the world population stutters, including about 3 million Americans.  Not all speech therapists are trained in treating a condition that has physiological and often genetic origins along with psychological impacts.  Largely misunderstood and often the subject of outdated advice from medical professionals who aren’t aware of the latest treatments, stuttering does respond to treatment from specialists who are.


Nathan Maxfield, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, in USF’s College of Behavioral & Community Sciences, finds shortcomings in how stuttering is portrayed, though it varies with the venue.

“The news media seems willing to cover people who stutter fairly if they have some public status; people like Jack Welch (former CEO of GE), various athletes, and the Vice President,” he said. “The entertainment media – movies and radio – still seem to do a poor job of representing people who stutter as ‘average Joes,’ eating, breathing people often with typical jobs, typical relationships, kids, houses, typical everything.”


Maxfield welcomes the opportunity to share his knowledge of stuttering and filling in the gaps in the public’s understanding of how it is caused.  He says that the most current models suggest that stuttering is caused by an interaction of several different factors.


“One view is that kids begin to stutter because their speech and language skills don't perform optimally. There is growing evidence, for example, that dissociations exist in the language skills of kids who stutter. At a very young age, kids who stutter may produce sentences that are notably long but not rich in vocabulary content. This trend reverses as kids who stutter get older with stronger vocabulary knowledge than sentence knowledge.”


Maxfield says that children who stutter can remain fluent under many conditions, but, “when pressed beyond their ‘fluent capacity,’ they begin to stutter. What presses them beyond their fluent capacity? The environment. We live in a world of fast-paced talk, and as kids who stutter try to keep-up their speech and language systems break-down, triggering stuttering.”


Some children continue stuttering throughout their lives and others seem to “outgrow" it or spontaneously recover.


“One factor that seems to play a role in recovery is a child's temperament,” Maxfield said.  “Kids who stutter, who have a more sensitive temperament, seem to stutter for a longer-term, whereas kids who stutter but regulate their emotions better seem to outgrow the disorder.”


Sadly, there is no cure, as yet, but there is hope.


“A cure is not currently known, but speech therapy can be effective and the younger a child is diagnosed the earlier treatment can start,” he said.  “Treatment varies depending on the severity of stuttering, the age of the client, and the client's emotional reactions to stuttering. Treatment for stuttering is complex, but there is scientific evidence that guides our treatment choices.”


Maxfield’s colleague, clinician Joseph Constantine, says speech therapy has changed since King George’s day, but not dramatically.  Where there were conflicting schools of thought and methods, these days, speech therapists use all they know and in every combination in order to find out what works.


“This is such a complex disorder and every case is different,” Constantine said.  “We have better research on what actually works and we really know there’s no silver bullet.  There are a number of commonly used approaches and we use different combinations for different people.”


In the king’s case, he made progress fairly late in life.  Constantine points out that it’s never too late to work on stuttering, but again, every case is different.


“The teenage years are probably the toughest and stuttering can get worse during adolescence.  And the severity of the case makes a difference.  But I’ve seen examples of people who start late in life and manage to learn techniques that are helpful them.”


The USF Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders conducts research, educates and mentors scientists, clinicians and interpreter, operates teaching clinics that offer diagnosis and treatment services and advocates for deaf people and those with speech, language and hearing disorders.


For more information about USF’s speech-language pathology services, call (813) 974-9844 or visit and for more information about The King’s Speech, visit


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.