“Finding ARTS Changed my Life”

by Ilan

I have been stuttering my entire life. Growing up I always had this dream that I would wake up one day and it would all be better; my stutter would be gone, and I would be fluent just like everyone else. As life progressed instead of my stutter disappearing it just kept on becoming worse, becoming a bigger part of my life. In elementary school, I would dread reading in class. In middle school, I wouldn’t want to participate in class and would be penalized for not sharing my thoughts. In high school, it even started to affect my social life. Instead of being able to control it, this beast started to control me.

In elementary school, I started going to speech therapy because I was told that I was speaking too quickly. They were attempting to decrease my rate of speech in the hope that it would decrease my stuttering. This worked for a while and I became more confident in my ability to communicate, but it was not a solution to my stuttering. A few months later I was back at speech therapy, but this time it was to shape my stutter so that I would be able to hide it. As I got older this became my goal, to hide stuttering at all costs. In speech therapy, I was taught tricks to help me reduce my disfluencies and while this worked for a while, I found myself in this constant cycle of fluency and disfluency. I could go weeks without even thinking about my speech and then all of a sudden, without warning, my stuttering would be back and back to speech therapy I would go. This went on throughout high school and in the back of my head I still hoped that one day the switch would click, and I would be fluent forever. That day never came.

After high school, I spent a gap year abroad. I met a lot of new people and, for me, this was a nightmare. As a person who stutters, one of the things I dread the most is introducing myself. I vividly remember going to visit one of my friends and during dinner on Friday night all the people visiting had to go around the table introducing themselves. We went around the room and everyone started to introduce themselves. I was hoping that somehow, they would skip over me, but when it came my turn to introduce myself I got up and tried to say my name. I had a big block on my first name, and I could hear one or two people chuckling in the back of the room. I was embarrassed and frustrated. The one time I didn’t want to stutter, happened to be the time when I did.

Similar episodes happened during my first semester at college. One of the first nights I was in college, I blocked on my name while introducing myself. This time I was asked if I forgot my name. This is something I hadn’t heard before, so I really wasn’t sure how to respond. I laughed it off, pretending it was no big deal. I didn’t want to tell him I stutter, because that was something I was still trying to hide.

A few days later when I was speaking with my mother, she reminded me that there was a speech therapist at the University of Maryland that was recommended by an old therapist of mine. I thought “what could I lose” so I sent Ms. Sisskin an email and we met a few days later. When we met, she told me about her Avoidance Reduction Therapy for Stuttering (also known as ARTS). At first, I was hesitant. Why would I want to be open about my stuttering, when I have spent the last 18 years of my life trying to hide it. While at the time I was not fond of the idea, since nothing had previously worked, I decided to give it a shot.

The first couple of weeks of group therapy were difficult. I was still trying to comprehend this new form of therapy. I was having trouble grappling with the idea that I should expose my stutter because in the long run it would make me a better communicator. A couple weeks went by and I started to understand the different rationales and theories behind ARTS. I learned that it is not important that I stutter, but rather how I stutter. We learned about different avoidance behaviors and how they can change a simple short stutter into a long show that can last longer than the word itself.

The first semester of therapy was focused on bringing out my stutter, something that I had been trying to avoid for as long as I can remember. This included getting rid of my avoidance behaviors. Towards the end of my first semester, we started to work on advertising, which was and still is one of my biggest challenges for therapy. Usually when people would ask me where I was going on a Monday afternoon I would tell them that I was just going to do work in the library. My first advertising assignment was to tell one of my friends that I was going to speech therapy. When I told her about my stuttering, I was very nervous because I had never told anyone else that I went to speech therapy, so I wasn’t sure how she would react.

Her answer wasn’t just reassuring, but it also made me understand something very important. Nobody is perfect. She told me something about herself that also made her “different”. I realized that everyone is special in a different way and it just so happens that my difference is more apparent than most people’s differences.

I realized my days of sneaking around were over. Now when people ask where I go on Monday afternoon I confidently say that I attend speech therapy for stuttering. No one reacts negatively to the fact that I attend speech therapy, that was just something I made up in my head for all these years.

My next semesters of therapy were focused on self-acceptance, reducing avoidance behaviors and completing more advertising assignments. My biggest challenge that I completed thus far has been advertising that I stutter in front of a group of 20 people. This was something that I wouldn’t have thought to do before I started therapy, but really helped me focus on the content of my presentation instead of constantly thinking about my speech and whether I would stutter, because it didn’t matter now that everyone knew. This was a milestone in my therapy, as it was the first time that I acknowledged my stutter to a large group of people.

Even though I have not finished my journey through therapy, it has already changed my life. I am no longer trying to hide my stuttering; it has become a part of who I am. I no longer keep quiet in lecture, but rather willfully participate in classroom discussion. I know I still have a long way to go, but the great people I have met along the way keep pushing me because they know I can reach my goals.