'The King's Speech' Likely to Break Stuttering Stereotypes

"The King's Speech" imagines the unconventional treatment that succeeded.

Nov. 30, 2010— -- At 32, Steven Kaufman finally has come to terms with the stuttering that was so often in the way when he was growing up, although he sometimes still feels that he's spinning his wheels in a snow bank when he gets stuck in a word and can't get it out.

But he's thrilled and proud to have attended the recent premiere of a movie telling the world that people who stumble on their own words "can accomplish anything you want: You can be king of England."

"The King's Speech," which opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles, depicts how Lionel Logue, an amateur Australian actor and self-styled speech therapist, helped Prince Albert acquire the confidence and skills to overcome a crippling stammer and overwhelming anxiety to take his place 74 years ago as Great Britain's King George VI.

While generating Oscar buzz for Geoffrey Rush, who plays Logue, and Colin Firth, who plays "Bertie," the film also seems likely to do for stuttering what "Rain Man" did for autism and "As Good As It Gets" did for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

As in the true story that it depicts with some artistic license, the film shows Logue employing unconventional means to help the future British monarch face a crowd and eventually deliver a confident coronation speech in 1937.

When Lady Elizabeth, portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter, describes her husband's affliction as "mechanical difficulties with his speech," Logue responds by telling him: "We need to relax your jaw muscles. Strengthen your tongue. You do have a flabby tummy. We need to spend some time strengthening your diaphragm. Simple mechanics."

Soon, he has the future king reciting the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill" while moving his arms in huge, sweeping circles; and has him repeating tongue twisters to improve his enunciation. At the same time, he develops an empathetic bond with his royal patient, becoming a trusted adviser and friend.

"This is a movie that really shows stuttering in a realistic light," Kaufman, of Plainview, N.Y., head of the Long Island chapter of the National Stuttering Association, an advocacy organization for youngsters and adults who stutter, said in an interview Monday.

"For the longest time, there's been many Hollywood movies that have used stuttering as a joke; as a punch line for comedic effect."

He pointed to the Loony Tunes cartoon character Porky Pig and Michael Palin's severely stuttering character in "A Fish Called Wanda."

"In 'The King's Speech,' the portrayal of somebody who stutters is so open, so raw, so honest, it doesn't pull any punches," he said.

Kaufman Remembers Only Knowing How to Be Alone

Kaufman, who started a blog in 2008 about stuttering, knows how isolated stutterers can become. "There were times in my life that being alone was the only thing I knew how to do. In junior high school, I remember there was one teacher; every time I would try to raise my hand, her response would always be, 'put your hand down, Steven, I have to get the lesson plan out.'

"I never dared say anything. In retrospect, I probably should have."

He thanks the National Stuttering Association for giving him courage, confidence and, "most importantly, they've given me the greatest voice of all, that I can help empower and educate others who are struggling with their lives."

He said he believes that the new film, which he saw at its star-studded premiere Nov. 8, will debunk misconceptions that stutterers are less intelligent than those to whom speech comes easily and help them see that stuttering can't be cured but successfully managed.

Josh Denault, 35, of Berkeley, Calif., agreed that the film has the potential to "put to rest the notion that stutterers are any less capable than people who speak normally."

A biotech researcher specializing in automation and process improvement, Denault said he'll be among a Bay Area stuttering association contingent seeing the film when it arrives there in early December.

On its Facebook page, the National Stuttering Association posted the following message, encouraging its members to turn local showings into teachable moments. "'The King's Speech' is coming to a movie theater near you? Make the most of the experience! Call the theater. … Explain to them who you are and ask the manager if you could host an informational table in the lobby."

Stuttering is relatively rare, affecting about 1 percent of the population, but a diagnosis can bring stigma, embarrassment and leave sufferers open to being bullied, said Jim McClure, 67, who described himself as a stutterer, association board member and the organization's de facto publicist.

An association member survey conducted last year found eight in 10 children were teased or bullied about their stuttering.

Scrutiny, Self-Consciousness Lead Many Stutterers to Practice Avoidance

The withering scrutiny and extreme self-consciousness leads many stutterers to avoid speechmaking or even ordering in restaurants. Some flock to professions that don't demand much talking.

Most "don't talk about the stuttering with co-workers and classmates, or in some cases, family and even close friends," McClure said.

"What is a big step for lots of people who stutter is bringing out stuttering in the open and accepting it."

McClure hopes that when people finally see the film, they'll emerge with an understanding "that people who stutter often come to terms with stuttering in very courageous ways, as the king certainly did. And perfectly fluent speech is not necessarily the ticket of admission to a normal life."

McClure said he worries that while current thinking is that much of stuttering is physiological, "we find that parents of children who stutter often get outmoded advice from pediatricians and speech therapists."

Among children who stutter at some point, the vast majority will become fluent speakers, so many parents hang back to see if their child outgrows the stammer before initiating speech therapy.

At the same time, clinical practice has shown that the best thing for a young child who stutters is expert therapy in the pre-school years, he said.

"If nothing else, it gives the kid a head-start in coming to terms with stuttering before he acquires a lot of emotional baggage. And there is a growing body of experience that the right kind of therapy at pre-school age seems to improve the odds that a kid who stutters will outgrow stuttering."

Early intervention and prevention are crucial, echoed Tommie L. Robinson Jr., president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville, Md., and director of the speech disorders center at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Robinson said the movie may have the power "to minimize the level of bullying and teasing that our kids endure as a result of this communications disorder."

Movie Realistically Depicts Protective Shell That Stutterers Create

In showing that King George VI underwent more than a decade of therapy with Logue, he said, the movie realistically depicts the degree of fear that often leaves them hiding for years.

He said his sister, now in her 50s, has just begin to emerge from that shell "and be a little bit proactive in terms of advocating for herself. It takes some time to do that."

That's why so much of treatment involves not just slowing down speech, drawing out the breath and easing into words, but also psychological counseling.

But unlike the Windsor family, for whom money was not much of an object, many families don't have insurance coverage or the money to afford the $300 an hour that a place such as the National Children's Medical Center charges for speech therapy, especially when it may go on for years.