Health & Medicine

Film 'The King's Speech' is lauded for addressing the problem of stuttering

In The King's Speech, Colin Firth plays King George VI, who ascended to England's throne in 1936 after his older brother abdicated, and who overcame a stuttering problem. Helena Bonham Carter plays George's wife, Queen Elizabeth.
In The King's Speech, Colin Firth plays King George VI, who ascended to England's throne in 1936 after his older brother abdicated, and who overcame a stuttering problem. Helena Bonham Carter plays George's wife, Queen Elizabeth.

Colin Firth's performance as the stuttering prince who ascended to England's throne in 1936 and overcame his handicap to address the British people on live radio during World War II has generated talk of an Academy Award or two for The King's Speech.

But the movie's portrayal of King George VI's relationship with his Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue, also has generated unprecedented awareness of stuttering and the therapists who treat it.

"This movie has done in one fell swoop what we've been working on for 64 years," said Jane Fraser, president of The Stuttering Foundation, founded by her father in 1947.

"It's great," said Jim Tsiamtsiouris, a specialist in the treatment of stuttering and an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Disorders at William Paterson University. "It's put the spotlight front and center on speech therapy."

His department graduates about 20 master's-level speech and language pathologists a year, and the university's speech and hearing clinic provides therapy to about 200 New Jersey families, including 10 with children who stutter.

The movie — which has not yet opened in Central Kentucky — depicts Prince Albert's debilitating stammer and his attempts to cure it.

Speech therapists are thrilled with the accuracy of Firth's portrayal of stuttering. The actor, Fraser said, "was so interested in getting the stutter right, and getting that feeling inside himself of that inconsolable despair that those who stutter feel."

In The King's Speech, she said, "nobody is promising a cure. It's all about getting through your duties in life."

Fraser says King George VI was the only role model her father had in the 1940s. Malcolm Fraser, who started the auto-parts business Genuine Parts Co. with his brother in 1928, stuttered severely from an early age. In a classic avoidance strategy, he declined to become president of the business because it was "too much pressure," she said.

But Bertie, as Prince Albert was known before he became King George VI, couldn't refuse when his older brother abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson. "He couldn't say, 'Let the other guy do it,'" said Fraser, whose foundation is based in Memphis.

About 3 million Americans — 1 percent of the population — stutter. "In the '40s, it was common to think stuttering was a psychological or learned behavior," Tsiamtsiouris said. "Now, we don't think that way." Scientists recently identified a genetic link for nearly 10 percent of cases.

"Early intervention is key in terms of minimizing the impact stuttering may have and facilitating recovery," Tsiamtsiouris said.

That intervention succeeded with Nick Polidoro, 5, of Bloomfield, N.J., whose kindergarten teacher told his parents that his stutter has been undetectable since he started school in September. He has had weekly sessions with a speech therapist since he was 3, when his stammering became noticeable, said his mother, Jody Polidoro.

"Unless you're a parent, you can't understand. I was crying on a daily basis," she said. "When you see your son wanting so hard to get something out, to say it and communicate it. ... We used to have to tell people, 'Don't finish his sentences.'" Now Nick has learned how to get himself out of the repetitive sounds of what he calls "bumpy speech," and to smooth out his words.

People who stutter often change their lives to avoid situations that will make it obvious. They might avoid speaking entirely, or they might find ways not to use the sounds that are most difficult to produce, by choosing not to order f-f-fish in a restaurant, for example. One of Tsiamtsiouris' adult patients, for example, became a computer programmer because he thought that job would not require him to talk. Another never talks on the telephone.

Tsiamtsiouris himself was a stutterer, and that led to his specialization in the field. He is one of about 1,000 speech-language pathologists nationwide who specialize in treating stutterers.

"I avoided lots and lots of situations," Tsiamtsiouris said. "I couldn't use the phone until I was in my 20s."

Stuttering usually appears between ages 2 and 5, and about 5 percent of all children go through a period of stuttering that lasts six months or more. Most recover by late childhood. The problem is, "We don't know which kids are going to become chronic adult stutterers and which are not," Tsiamtsiouris said.

Girls are more likely to outgrow it than boys. At age 2, 60 percent of those who stutter are boys, whereas at age 3, 75 percent of those who stutter are boys.

"One thing we know for sure is that stuttering affects people of all classes and economic backgrounds," Tsiamtsiouris said. "Here is this person — King George VI — who had everything, and he stuttered."

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