In this latest piece by NSA Spotlight Writer Jamie Wolff, Jamie sits down with SLP Sara MacIntyre to bridge the gap between speech professionals and people who stutter.
Hi there. Nice to see you again.
Sara MacIntyre, M.A., CCC-SLP is the founder of YouSpeak, a private practice in Philadelphia specializing in whole-person, individualized stuttering therapy. Sara also works for the Stuttering Foundation as the Director of Programs and Education, where she manages special projects including Virtual Learning by Stuttering Foundation, an interactive online learning series. Sara is very active in the self-help community and is the One-Day Conference Director for Friends: The National Association of Young People Who Stutter. I’m honored to have Sara join this Spotlight interview series – a series to help bridge the gap between PWS, therapy, and support by sharing personal and professional journeys that empower PWS to figure out what works for them (because stuttering is one size fits none).
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sara and learning more about her personal and professional journey.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. What would you like readers to know about you?
I’m a speech therapist and a person who stutters. I came into this profession rather untraditionally. I was a finance major in college, and I worked in consulting in DC after school. I didn’t deal with my stuttering or acknowledge it until right after college. I went to speech therapy at the American Institute for Stuttering, where, for the first time, I met other people who stuttered and met therapists who really “got it.” I’m not going to lie – the first few days were hard. However, meeting other people my age who stuttered and who used the same coping mechanisms as I did was life-changing. The more I worked through my own journey of acceptance and ownership, the happier and more myself I felt. My journey definitely inspired my career shift, and I moved to Pittsburgh, sort of on a whim, to start graduate school. From there, I actually ended up working for AIS where I received therapy personally. About two years ago, I moved back to Philadelphia and started my own practice.
According to my parents, I started stuttering around the age of two according to my parents. I was always very aware of it, and I intuitively fell into a more covert approach. Stuttering wasn’t openly discussed in my household, not because my parents wouldn’t have been supportive, but I think that was the professional advice they received: if they ignored it, it would go away.
I went to speech therapy in Kindergarten, and the therapist was very friendly, but the only thing we did was flip picture cards as she told me to “speak like a turtle.” When I stuttered, she would just have me try again. I remember thinking, “This isn’t going to work…This is just how I talk.” I told my mom I didn’t like going to speech therapy and, from then on, I dealt with it on my own. I feel like I still have a slight aversion to turtles, as well as the term “turtle talking.” Over the years, I was so skilled at passing as fluent that people didn’t know about my internal struggles and moment-by moment tactics – carrying around a candy wrapper to create static on the phone, coughing before I answered the phone, dodging presentations, going to the nurse’s office, hiding in the bathroom so my sister answered the phone, only ordering things I could say…There were phases in my life where I ordered a lot of one particular sandwich or ice cream flavor.
I remember Googling “can’t say certain sounds” because I actually didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t know it was an experience that others shared. “Stuttering” came up in the search results, along with things like “traumatic brain injury.” I remember feeling like I almost preferred whatever I was going through to be brain damage, versus stuttering.
I placed so much value on not stuttering in front of people, but I was very talkative and social. I was always managing two competing roles – overtly social and happy on the outside, and a perpetual struggle to maintain that identity on the inside. I went to a small girls’ high school, which was a very empowering environment, but college was much more difficult. There was less support, and it was your responsibility to succeed. Many of my business classes at Lehigh were structured so that you didn’t raise your hand – you were just called. It was very stressful.
I like to use the word “relationship” with my stuttering. Sometimes it’s kind of stubborn, sometimes it needs some love, sometimes I react to it, sometimes I laugh with it…How has your relationship with your stutter changed?
I’ve danced a line over the last ten years or so of not liking my stuttering very much to valuing it more. I think I aim for net neutral, and I don’t claim to have it all together all the time. I’ve also grown to understand how it has shaped my personal identity. In the thick of my acceptance journey, I made it more of my identity because I needed it to be out there for people to see and understand, and I needed to know that I could be accepted openly as someone who stutters. Now I’m trying to balance accepting and maintaining that openness with the fact that I have a lot of other personal interests and qualities.
In my personal speech therapy, one of my therapists offered a helpful visual analogy of stuttering that I’ll always remember. She described stuttering as a component of a wheel. At that point, it felt like the hub of my wheel, where it touched everything. The goal was for it to be one of the spokes, so that it didn’t touch everything else and that it fell in line with all the other characteristics of oneself. That’s been my process.
I appreciate that, and it leaves it very open-ended. Seeing it as the spoke of a wheel can mean so many different things! I’d love to hear more about how you support others and how you help people figure out what works for them.
The more people I meet, the more I learn the uniqueness of every person’s experience. Most people come to therapy wanting to be fluent, but I think they ultimately want to live a full life where stuttering isn’t the priority. They want to feel confident about how they communicate, enjoy communicating, and feel less worried about what others think. How they get there, or what piece of the puzzle is important to the individual, differs.
The process of meeting other people who stutter can be, first and foremost, the most impactful part of this, but not everyone is ready for that right off the bat. I feel pretty strongly about group therapy, and I incorporate a lot of public speaking. When you’re able to build your confidence as a communicator, your reactions to stuttering change. We actually have to peel away our self-developed suppressing and coping mechanisms and learn to lay out the welcome mat a bit more for the stutter. Easier said than done for sure, but it’s a process that can really make sense.
What are some signs that someone feels like they’re communicating more effectively? I’m sure it’s different for each person.
I’m a big believer that the little things add up. For example:
- I participated in class, and I felt like my contribution was valued. I’m proud of what I shared.
- I notice that I’m making a little more eye contact during work meetings this week.
- Opening up to a few coworkers has made me feel a little freer in speaking and more comfortable showing my stuttering.
- I made my own doctor’s appointment, rather than my mom doing it for me.
- An intern wrote me a note thanking me for all that I’ve taught him this summer, and it showed me that it’s not just the stuttering he saw. He valued me as a teacher, and I communicated effectively.
Huge leaps into the scary unknown can be powerful, but small changes and your ability to reflect on them build the blocks for sustainability.
Those moments are all so empowering in different ways, depending on the person. I’d love to talk about authentic voice and what that means to you. Also, how do you figure out what that looks like for you? Is it a felt sense? Is it when you feel like you’re communicating effectively?…
For me, my authentic voice is saying what I want to say, regardless of whether or not I stutter – turning away from the voice that says, “Use this trick. Hide it.” It can still emerge sometimes, I’m not perfect! Stuttering is a part of my authentic voice, and I don’t always love it, but I’m actually a better communicator when I lay out the welcome mat.
Connecting with your authentic voice means feeling confident and happy with communication and saying what you want to say when you want to say it. In a bigger picture sense, it means participating in all that life has to offer to you. It’s not a finite, black and white thing. It’s making small choices day to day that are more in line with your authentic self than not, while being flexible and exercising self-kindness during times when that choice feels too difficult.
I love the element of play, so I bring that to my stutter. I find it a fun challenge to see how I can manipulate the words in a way that still conveys what I want to say. It sometimes ends up coming out more clearly, because I have to be intentional and thoughtful with my word choice. I think that has helped me become a more effective and creative communicator.
Word-switching was the biggest trick in my book, and I was a walking thesaurus. For me, that has been an important thing to reduce, because I associate that with hiding my authentic self and worrying too much about what the listener may think. It’s definitely an individual process for sure. Some people have things that they want to change and give up, while other people have tricks that don’t need to necessarily be unraveled right now.
What are some ideas for how we can bridge the gap between people who stutter and getting support, as well as the general public?
I think that people who stutter should drive their therapy. The responsibility goes both ways – people who stutter being honest about what’s helpful and unhelpful in therapy and therapists being open to learning from people’s stories and open to change. I do think it’s important for people who stutter to have a space of their own, for a variety of reasons. However, we also have a responsibility to continue sharing our experiences and teaching others. This ultimately enhances the lenses used by therapists and family members of people who stutter. I think there’s a bridge to maintain, but there’s also space to respect.
Coming full-circle, what has your stutter taught you?
Stuttering has taught me:
- to embrace all components of what makes me me, even if I don’t like them.
- the power of community.
- to empathize with people as a whole, beyond stuttering. Given my covert and passing as fluent experience, I’m always the one to assume that someone is going through something isn’t visible and that we don’t understand completely.
- the power of self-kindness and flexibility. There are many ups and downs in this journey!
What’s next for you?
I’m hoping to continue to grow my practice here in Philadelphia and my work with stuttering organizations. I hope to contribute in a meaningful way both clinically and by bringing support to local communities. I’m also continuing to grow in my own personal acceptance journey while continuing to meet and learn from many other people who stutter.
Thank you so much again to Sara. And keep sharing your stories, because someone wants to hear them.
Jamie (aka James) is a New York creative arts therapist – turned personal trainer – turned health coach and curriculum developer. As a person who stutters, Jamie has never let her stutter hold her back, instead saying: ‘When it comes to making decisions and taking risks, if anything, my stutter pushes me to succeed’. As a writer Jamie believes that stories matter; the stories we share and the stories we tell ourselves – they matter.