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Stuttering

As a young child and all through his college years, Kenneth O. St. Louis was a stutterer, and he still stutters sometimes on the phone (or when speaking Turkish).

For more than four decades, the West Virginia University professor of communication sciences and disorders, who has started a phased retirement, helped others with fluency disorders. 

His life’s work has been devoted to mentoring and teaching thousands of students, leading therapy sessions that have touched thousands of clients, and conducting research around public opinion of stutterers to stop bullying and discrimination.

Q What are the main causes of stuttering, and how do you treat it? 

A It is increasingly clear that in most cases stuttering is a physiological problem, with genetic components that are just beginning to be understood. We treat it behaviorally by teaching individuals other ways of speaking so they don’t struggle as much.   

I understand you were a stutterer early in life. Tell us about that. 

I stuttered as a child ever since I can remember. No one ever heard of a speech pathologist in those days. When I was in preschool, my parents took me to a specialist in Denver, Colo., and the advice they got was to just ignore the stuttering and it would go away. The thinking back then was that stuttering was basically the result of parents having too high of speech standards thus making the child upset if they made an issue of it. Of course, it turns out that is not true. But, nevertheless they ignored my stuttering — and it didn’t go away. 

When I enrolled at Colorado State University, I decided to major in speech pathology and was lucky enough to meet a professor and my mentor, Bill Leith. He basically directed my studies and my therapy. I am one of the lucky ones. After two years of therapy, I became very fluent and have stayed that way through the rest of my life. 

How many clients do you think you have helped over the years? 

I wish I had a number — certainly hundreds, possibly thousands — if you think of it in terms of my research and studies, the consulting I’ve done, my work with students who have gone on to touch so many lives.

My research around public opinions of people with stuttering, for example, has spawned nearly 250 other studies. The [survey] instrument I developed has been used in 42 countries and has been translated into 26 languages. I have worked closely with Mary Weidner, a doctoral student who is working on a series of studies dealing with measuring and attempting to improve the attitudes of preschoolers. If you can believe it, stereotypes are worse in preschool than in kindergarten children. Kids who stutter are seen by normally speaking kids as fearful and shy — and that’s just not true. Hopefully, her work will help reduce the teasing and bullying in our schools as well as job discrimination in the workplace. 

What motivated you to want to help others through your long career in higher education?

I didn’t know it back then, but I guess I always wanted to be a scientist more than anything else. I was going to solve the problem of stuttering once and for all. Of course that’s not going to happen. But in the process, I’ve directed a lot of speech therapy, running individual and group therapy for adults and supervising hundreds of students who have gone on to help others. I ended up helping lots of people who stutter by virtue of being in the world of higher education and specializing in fluency disorders. 

Are there any cases that stand out to you as truly remarkable success stories? 

Well, there are many but one of them is a person – his name is Tim Flynn – who started out as a student and client in our group therapy program and eventually switched his major to communication sciences and disorders. When he came into the program he was a severe stutterer, but he stayed with the therapy and went on to get his master’s degree in this field. Now he’s a speech-language pathologist in Virginia.

Tim is not just a survivor, he is a prevailer. He had some really hard knocks in his life and has used his stuttering to his advantage and to the advantage of his clients. He’s just a wonderful clinician. He has a way of connecting with people … interacting with an audience. Today, he treats all speech disorders, but particularly those who stutter.

He is also passionate about changing the public’s mindset about stutterers. This is an area I’ve studied for some 17 years and actually developed a widely recognized public opinion study on attitudes toward stuttering.

As a student here, Tim would give talks to local high school health classes and, as part of his thesis, he studied how high school students viewed stuttering. He really was the first person to seriously contribute to the science of changing public attitudes about stuttering. 

One of reasons I see him as a success story is because he’s more than someone who overcame stuttering. You see, it’s not so much success around how fluent you become or how little you stutter, but what you do in spite of your stuttering – not letting stuttering determine your present or your future.

I’ve seen those who stutter not do so when singing or performing? How does that happen?

It’s true. Very few people stutter when they sing; most are completely fluent. There are lots of explanations for that, basically involving how the brain functions in different ways in different people. For example, singing is typically memorized, and one doesn’t have to think about the pronunciation. Also, vowels are prolonged when you sing and singing is also non-communicative in the typical sense.  

How many students have you taught/mentored during your career? 

I’d say anywhere from five to eight every semester for nearly 40 years, so what’s that – let’s just say in the hundreds.

Who were your biggest influences?

As I mentioned earlier, my mentor and clinician at Colorado State Bill Leith is one. But I would also say dozens of my colleagues – particularly the colleagues and administrators here who have permitted me to stay on this path of specializing in fluency disorders.

And, of course, my parents who instilled in me – maybe too much – an extreme hard work ethic.  

Also my wrestling coach in high school who taught me never to give up. You know, if you’re going to succeed in academia, you have to work extremely hard and rise above obstacles and rejection.

What do you want people to remember about you as you prepare to enter retirement? 

The contributions I have made in my field. That I’ve made a difference. And, that I was a good man. 

What advice do you have for young professionals in your field?

It is related to the motto I put into my yearbook at Steamboat Springs High School: Minds are like parachutes. They only function well when they are open. 

Basically, my advice is to keep an open mind. Be open to whatever is coming your way. Realize that we are all students. It’s all about the search.

What’s next for Dr. St. Louis? 

I hope it’s not a nursing home right away (laughs). I want to pursue some other interests. We have a cabin in the mountains of Colorado that we will visit more often. I would like to try some different kinds of writing – maybe a memoir. Beyond that, travel. I love international work, so I will always keep traveling.

Ken St. Louis

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