Movie brings stuttering into focus at SJU

Mitchell Trichon (r.) of St. John's University explains the mind of a stutterer as stutter sufferers John D'Amelio (l. to r.), Nina Zito and Paul Ferguson look on. Photo by Howard Koplowitz
By Howard Koplowitz

After viewing the multiple Oscar-winning film “The King’s Speech” at St. John’s University last week, members of the Queens chapter of the National Stuttering Association spoke about their own difficulties and dispelled myths that surround the speech disorder.

The movie tells the true story of England’s King George VI, Queens Elizabeth’s father, who mastered stuttering during public appearances with the help of his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.

Stuttering affects 5 percent of children and 1 percent of adults, said Dr. Mitchell Trichon, a St. John’s instructor who teaches speech pathology and struggles with stuttering himself.

Trichon said “The King’s Speech” “gives insight into what the experience of stuttering is like.”

Contrary to popular belief, stuttering is not a nervous condition or associated with anxiety, Trichon said.

“I don’t stutter because I’m nervous,” said Trichon, who began to stutter at age 3.

He was in speech therapy in public school and started a three-week intensive program at 13 that helped him with surface behaviors of stuttering — such as thinking about what words he might stutter on before he got to the word — and thought he was cured but the stuttering came back.

“At that time, to me stuttering was something that you aimed to get rid of,” Trichon said.

But Trichon said a person can stutter “and still be a great communicator.”

He said there are differences in brain activity between stutters and people who are fluent, with fluent people having more activity in the left part of their brain.

But besides that not much is known on why some people stutter.

“A lot of people are still trying to figure out what it is,” he said.

Speech therapy and pathology students at St. John’s viewed the film and one person asked whether the scene in which Logue (Geoffrey Rush) instructs King George VI (Colin Firth) to sing as a way to help his stuttering actually works.

Paul Ferguson, a stutterer and fireman, said he plays in a band and said the method is effective but impractical.

“It’s easy. I don’t know why. It’s odd, but it’s true,” he said. “I think people who stutter would rather stutter than sing all the time.”

Trichon said speech therapists used to use headphones containing white noise on their patients, which also works but is not ideal.

“There are positive effects to hearing the white noise, but it often fades away and you can’t listen to what people are saying,” he said.

Nina Zito, a 21-year-old Whitestone resident and St. Joseph’s College student, said she tries to help her stuttering by talking slowly and using pausing and breathing techniques.

Zito, who said she was the president of her college class and has to give a lot of speeches, said she will say right upfront that she stutters and then goes on with her speech.

Trichon said stutterers cannot let what other people think of them get in the way of their speaking.

“You shouldn’t let the environment control the way you think about yourself or your speech,” he said. “Successful stutterers seem to have that kind of attitude. In the past, I thought, ‘I was going to stutter and they’re going to think I’m an idiot.’”

Bayside resident and stutterer John D’Amelio, 38, said he has a positive mindset.

“After 30-some-odd years of stuttering … whatever,” he said.

D’Amelio said he appreciated “The King’s Speech” for shining the light on stuttering.

“I think it’s brought a lot of exposure to stuttering, people who stutter,” he said.

For more information about the support group at St. John’s, visit nsaqueens.com or send an e-mail to stuttering@stjohns.edu.

Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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