'The King's Speech': Film as Therapy for Stutterers

Oscar-nominated film offers hope and tips for stutterers

Feb. 24, 2011— -- As Mia Pivirotto watched "The King's Speech" in the theater, she was on the verge of tears the entire time.

She isn't the only one to be moved by the film, which stars Colin Firth as King George VI and Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist. It's been nominated for an Oscar for best picture.

For Pivirotto, 21, the movie offered a snapshot into what she's been trying to overcome her entire life: a stutter.

Pivirotto, an undergraduate, has even taken a year off from studying neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh to focus on fluency, or improving her stutter.

She creates video blogs to practice her speech and is constantly trying new techniques.

After she saw "The King's Speech," she decided to try something she saw in the film.

In one scene, the speech therapist puts headphones on the king and plays loud music to drown out the sound of his voice.

"It worked really well for me," Pivirotto said. "I wasn't worried about each word and how it sounded. I was just able to talk."

She explained that she stutters most when she thinks about her words too much.

"If I could just turn off that part of my brain, I'm pretty sure I'd be fluent," she said.

Playing Loud Music

Since seeing "The King's Speech," Pivirotto has been practicing speaking with headphones on and is hoping it continues to improve her stutter.

Playing loud background music can also be a viable way to cope with stuttering.

According to LuAnn Yates, a Clinical Supervisor at the Hollins Communications Research Institute, in Roanoke, Va., the concept is similar to a technique she employs called "white noise masking."

"If I take a person and I put headphones on them and I turn the white noise up very loud and ask them to either speak or read, you will notice a marked change in their fluency," Yates said.

It's a technique she administers frequently at the Hollins Institute, a speech therapy center that has treated people such as broadcaster John Stossel and Annie Glenn, wife of astronaut John Glenn.

Shouting Expletives

Yates explained that there is no magic cure for stuttering, but there are ways to retrain the mouth's muscles to improve stutters.

Other techniques shown in the film have proven helpful for people who stutter.

Schuyler Slack, 22, has tried three of the things he saw in "The King's Speech": Reading with music in the background, rocking back and forth slightly, and shouting expletives every other word.

"That one doesn't just help, but makes you feel pretty good, too," Slack, a cello performance major at the Cleveland Institute of Music, said about shouting expletives.

Slack said playing background music is similar to the most successful technique he has tried, Delayed Auditory Feedback.

With DAF, the speaker talks into a microphone and the speech is replayed a fraction of a second later.

"I tried using DAF one time and I was able to speak perfectly and I stunned my speech therapist, who was also a stutterer and had to practice on it for a month to get that good," Slack said.

But for 34-year-old Jeff Kershaw, the most helpful part of the movie wasn't a single technique, but rather the overall approach to stuttering as a physiological problem, rather than a psychological one.

"It wasn't, 'Let's go deep in your psyche,'" Kershaw said of the movie. "The therapist used breathing techniques, muscle training, not psychology."

Kershaw said it's that kind of approach that has made the difference for him.

It's Physiological, Not Psychological

"The real breakthrough in my therapy was when I realized, You know what? This is a physiological problem, and there are things I can do to practice and control my fluency," he said.

"And not only that, I'm not crazy," he added.

But according to Yates, that's one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding stuttering.

"There's a tremendous amount of misinformation [about stuttering]," Yates said. "It's not a personality disorder, and people who stutter have normal intelligence, but there's been a lot of misconceptions over the years."

She said because stuttering only affects about two million Americans, it's possible to live a lifetime without crossing paths with someone who stutters.

Since the movie's release, Kershaw said he's noticed more of an interest in stuttering.

"Now people ask me about it," Kershaw said. "They ask me about my own difficulties, and there's been an opening of the door now to talk about it."

For Slack, too, "The King's Speech" had an emotional impact.

"For every 99 hours I spend angry or ashamed or embarrassed about the way I speak, there's at least one hour where I feel proud of it because I know that I wouldn't have the same sensitivity, compassion, or strength of character if I didn't stutter," Slack said. "[Seeing the movie] was one of those hours."

ABCNews.com contributor Danielle Waugh is a member of the ABC News on Campus bureau in Syracuse, N.Y.