“The way I would describe stuttering is like – say that you’re trying to talk, you know what you want to say but you get blocks, which means you can’t get the words out or you have prolongations. You can also get stretches in your words,” says Mitchell, a young person who stutters.
Mitchell loves footy and basketball, chatting with friends on PlayStation, and working with his hands – having recently graduated high school he’s thinking about a career in construction. “Or maybe a footy player, I’ll just wait and see on that!” he jokes.
“At the start of high school it was really difficult cause I only knew two people out of 1000 kids so it was pretty confronting, trying to make new friends was hard. They didn’t know what stuttering was but as the year’s gone on they’ve accepted it. Next year I made friends that were awesome and I’m still friends with them.
“At times it can be frustrating but I wouldn’t change it at all.”
“Mitchell is a great role model, very brave, very bold, he inspires me as an adult who stutters as well,” says Rich Stephens, President of The Stuttering Association for the Young (SAY): Australia.
How does stuttering affect children?
Stuttering is a common yet widely misunderstood neurological communication disability that affects more than 70 million people worldwide. One in nine Australian children stutter; a third will stutter their entire lives. Young people who stutter struggle, not only with their speech disorder, but also with cruelty, bullying, discrimination and social isolation.
Feelings of shame and low self-esteem often also fuel the fear of speaking, which can silence children completely and dramatically hinder their educational and professional opportunities. It can also lead to self-harm and even suicidal thoughts.
Creating a safe space
The Foundation awarded a Community Grant to SAY: Australia for its Confident Voices: My Share Project, a 10-week online creative arts program for young people who stutter.
Participants creatively collaborate on a unique ‘share’ – a poem, song, short play, dance, etc – on a topic important to them. They then perform and celebrate their ‘share’ during a virtual showcase event attended by supportive family and friends.
“In an environment of acceptance, understanding, deep-listening, and love, participants can share their thoughts and feelings however they choose, knowing that they have as much time as they need to speak,” Rich explains.
The Stuttering Diaries: Mitchell shares his experience
Mitchell and his assigned partner, Jack, who lives in Queensland, collaborated on a collection of skits titled The Stuttering Diaries: The Painful, the Awkward, and Everything In Between. The script was written by the two boys and set in high school. They were helped on the project by Volunteer Teaching Artist Cody Packer, a film director from New Zealand who also stutters.
“There were two kids who stuttered and bullies (in the skit). At the start the bullies were picking on the kids and then in the end they made up,” describes Mitchell. The boys practised the skit multiple times before it was recorded and shown to a virtual audience of 80+. “We were really nervous and also anxious but once we started performing I was fine. I think it went really well. We got a round of applause from the audience and ‘well done!’ from our parents.”
Mitchell has gained confidence since his involvement with SAY: Australia. “I feel like I’ve accepted the way I talk and communicate with others, that was really hard at the start,” he says. He’s now planning to become a mentor with the organisation to help other kids find the same acceptance and confidence.
Mitchell’s parents Jennifer and Jason have noticed the differences too: “SAY: Australia welcomed our son and our whole family as soon as we walked through the door on the very first day of programming. Mitchell always feels comfortable, safe, and supported when he’s at Confident Voices. We noticed almost immediately that Mitchell was much more confident and engaging with other people. SAY: Australia has given us a better understanding of stuttering and how to engage with more empathy towards our son.”
Finding their voice
“If you create a space where young people who stutter can just be their authentic awesome selves, where they can speak however they want to speak, they’ll come and enjoy it,” says Rich.
He notices a big difference in the kids’ behaviour throughout the duration of the program. In week one they might be nervous and unsure, but then start to engage more as time goes on, putting their hands up, wanting to speak and wanting to create.
One such surprise chatterbox is Aaliyah. “We are so proud of our little gal and the whole team of SAY: Australia. Aaliyah took her SAY: Australia t-shirt to school and did show and tell. Aaliyah’s confidence has grown so much,” says her mum Anita. “Aaliyah’s teacher has said she is like a different child this term and she has had to move her three times because now she just keeps chatting to the other kids in the classroom!”
How to speak with a person who stutters
“A lot of people who stutter are fearful of exposing themselves because of the negative reactions that people get and the lack of awareness out there,” Rich explains.
“Walking off or not letting me talk and get the words out, that is annoying,” says Mitchell. “At the start when meeting new people I’m anxious but once we’re talking I’m fine.”
“All of us have our story, and the way we’d like to be treated,” says Rich. “We know the words we want to say, it just takes us a bit longer to get the words out. When you provide a space where somebody is given as much time as they need to say the words they want to say – that can really change their day. When you truly listen then you make a person really feel heard.”
About the Community Grants Program
Twice every year the Sisters of Charity Foundation provides grants of up to $15,000 to small not-for-profits across Australia that use clever ways to fight poverty, loneliness, suffering and oppression. We rely on the generosity of supporters to fund our Community Grants Program.
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