As Quinton Washington stood in front of his University of Michigan football teammates and new coaches, he felt the familiar tension in his throat, the block that limited him most of his life.
With help, stuttering can be overcome
Help for stuttering is available locally in the Charleston area, but the key is finding a speech therapist with regular experience in helping stutterers, says a local expert.“When a parent first recognizes stuttering in a child, contact a therapist with training in ‘disfluency therapy’ or who treats people who stutter on a weekly basis,” advised Melissa Montiel, a licensed speech-language pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Evelyn Trammel Institute for Voice and Swallowing.“And if someone has tried speech therapy and it hasn’t worked, it’s worth trying again and not giving up.”Montiel said therapy for stuttering varies widely depending on severity and age.Regardless, stuttering — which has no known medical cause but does tend to run in families — can be a mentally scarring condition.“Something that breaks my heart is the belief that people who stutter aren’t smart. That’s absolutely not true, but it can often hold them back from learning,” said Montiel, noting that left-handed people are more likely to stutter than right-handed people because the former tends to access both sides of their brain for language.For a stutterer, acknowledging that it’s part of who he or she is can actually aid in overcoming the condition, Montiel said, because it takes some pressure off.Kenn Apel, director of the Knowledge of Orthographic Learning Lab at the University of South Carolina, recently co-authored “Beyond Baby Talk: From Speaking to Spelling: A Guide to Language and Literacy Development for Parents and Caregivers” and says stuttering, or fluency, has many different ways of manifesting itself.“It looks differently on different people. There’s a wide range of different kinds of disorders,” said Apel, noting that some people have problems pronouncing sounds, while others have issues pronouncing language and grammar.“It all depends on what kind of impairment we’re talking about. Some are very much tied to specific causes (strokes, head trauma, family history). Some we still don’t know,” said Apel. Stuttering is more common than many people think, he said.“Speech and language problems could be up to 25 percent of kids … We’ve got kids who are on the autism spectrum disorder who have speech and language problems as well,” said Apel.While parents don’t need to “freak out” about some speech problems, Apel said they do need to know what’s typical and what’s not — and not to wait too long to seek treatment for identifiable issues.Getting help not only helps an individual stutterer but furthers overall efforts to overcome problems.“We’re constantly trying to figure out through science what are the best ways to help the people we see. The more we do that, the better we can figure out the more efficient ways to do that to help them,” said Apel. “We definitely have found better ways to help them. We’ve actually discovered problems we didn’t know existed back when I was first in school. “Darryl Slater of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.
It was the reason why his parents ordered for him in restaurants, why he slipped out to the bathroom when the teacher asked for introductions on the first day of class, why he avoided most conversations and decided silence was the best defense against the teasing.
Hometown: St. Stephen High school: Timberland Sport: University of Michigan footballYear/position: Redshirt junior, defensive tackleHeight/weight: 6-4, 300 Notable: An offensive lineman until the spring of 2011, Washington is in his first season starting. He has 29 tackles this season, including two for a loss, and one forced fumble. Coming out of high school, he was rated the No. 8 offensive guard, No. 10 recruit in the state of South Carolina and No. 213 overall prospect in the Class of 2009 by recruiting website Rivals.com. He also considered playing at South Carolina, Clemson, Miami and Tennessee.
For all these years, one of life’s simplest questions — What’s your name? — tortured Washington. He had no mental handicap that prevented him from answering, but whenever he tried to push out the first sound, it remained trapped inside his head. He was always a hulking kid, easily noticeable, but his stutter made him want to shrink back from others.
“In my head, I felt defeated,” Washington said. “It was like, a 3-year-old can say his name, but I can’t get it out for some reason. So I felt defeated as a person, getting teased all the time. I didn’t want to be defeated.”
Washington, who grew up in St. Stephen, was a highly regarded offensive line recruit at Timberland High School and had his pick of colleges. He chose Michigan partly because its coaches said they would provide him a speech pathologist. Almost immediately after he arrived at Michigan in the summer of 2009, he began working with Dr. David Daly, a former athlete who once agonized about his own stutter.
Over the next year and a half, Washington made significant progress, and he was about to test it on that day in early 2011, shortly after coach Brady Hoke was hired.
The coaching change would result in on-field success for Washington, as Hoke’s staff moved him from offensive line to defensive tackle. He is a starter this season, which concludes Jan. 1 against South Carolina in the Outback Bowl.
Like most new coaches, Hoke gathered his team of 100-plus players and coaches after he took over and asked each player to introduce himself. Even in a room full of large men, the 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound Washington stood out. He couldn’t shrink back. When his turn came to speak, he stood up, opened his mouth and tried to push out the first sound.
Arthur and Lucille Washington first noticed the problem when Quinton was 3 years old, but they didn’t worry initially. Lucille’s father and two brothers stuttered. Quinton’s brother did, too, but stopped within a year.
Quinton’s stuttering persisted. He sometimes stammered through words mid-sentence, but his main problem was getting started and breaking a silence that grew more awkward with every gap in a conversation.
“When we’d go out and somebody would talk to him and he couldn’t get his words out, I would talk for him,” Arthur said.
Washington’s dad couldn’t answer for him forever, so Arthur and Lucille arranged for speech therapy during elementary school. Washington said he stopped attending after fourth grade because his middle school didn’t have a program. He regressed. During his years at Timberland, he was so busy excelling at football that there was little time for the 50-mile drive to Charleston to see a pathologist, let alone money to cover the sessions.
Still, Washington got along socially. He had two girlfriends during high school. At first, he preferred to exchange text messages with them, but once he got comfortable, he conversed normally, just like with his parents.
Then college coaches started calling to recruit him. It was a nightmare scenario for Washington — a phone conversation with a total stranger who is evaluating his character.
“He knew that the nerves were going to show up,” Lucille said.
She tried to calm him.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” she told him. “This is something that happens sometimes with some people.”
Washington knew college coaches would be patient with him. He also knew they could never understand how helpless he felt when he hit a block. It was like “the air was trapped in my throat” or “someone put a cap in my throat whenever someone asked a question,” Washington said.
Every night, the phone rang, another college coach or two hoping to speak with Washington. The coaches, aware of Washington’s impairment, asked a question. Several minutes of silence followed, as Washington tried to break through that cap in his throat.
“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” Washington said. “It was terrifying, absolutely terrifying. It was horrible.”
Smooth, easy starts
David Daly never had to deal with dozens of recruiting calls, but before he worked with stutterers, he was an all-state high school quarterback in the late 1950s. He stammered so often that his team frequently was penalized for delay of game because he took so long to say the play in the huddle. In basketball, he struggled to check in at the scorer’s table, because he got snagged on the “D” sound when he had to give his name.
Sports helped Daly’s self-esteem, but as a teenager, his stuttering made him feel so lonely that he briefly contemplated suicide. On his wedding day, it took him an entire minute to say “I do.”
“I think the priest thought I was having a seizure,” Daly joked.
He did not smooth his speech until he was 28, when he got his doctorate in speech/language pathology. He relied on therapy and treating himself with methods he later used on others.
Speech impairments are not entirely solvable. When Daly, now 72, opened his practice in 1979, the prevailing notion was that people who stuttered would never totally stop, he said.
Daly doesn’t promise fully smooth speech to any of his clients, but he said severe stutterers tend to make the most progress. When Washington met Daly in July 2009, he was moderately severe. Daly said Washington was a tonic stutterer, meaning he got stuck in silence when trying to talk. Washington had some issues, but fewer, with clonic stuttering — stammering through words while talking.
“He had a significant problem,” Daly said. “It was going to interfere with him finding a job.”
Though Washington longed to fix his speech, he was skeptical when he began his twice-weekly, hourly meetings with Daly. The exercises “felt like some kid stuff,” Washington said.
They were retraining Washington’s mouth. They worked on “smooth, easy starts” to an introduction — “Quuuinton,” rather than a harder “Quinton.” To emphasize the mouth pressure required for the starts, Daly had Washington press together the tips of his index finger and thumb. As Washington slowly began saying the word, Daly had him separate his finger and thumb, releasing the pressure.
Washington found the smooth, easy starts especially helpful. Within three months, Daly saw improvement in Washington — relatively quick progress, Daly said. Six months in, Washington conversed during Daly’s group sessions, undeterred by his occasional stutter.
He was moving toward his dream. Daly asked him about it in an early session: If you conquer your impairment, what is the one thing you want to do?
“I would like to go back to my high school and give a speech,” Washington said.
‘Going to work out’
The 100-plus Michigan football players and coaches waited for Washington, then a sophomore, as he stood in front of them.
He did well enough with Daly that they met less often during Washington’s second year at Michigan. Now, in this introductory team meeting, he just had to say his name, hometown and position.
As he started, he thought he was about to stall. Then he remembered his smooth, easy start. He opened his mouth.
“My name is Quinton Washington,” he said, the words rolling out. “I’m from St. Stephen, South Carolina. Defensive tackle.”
He closed his mouth and sat down.
“I felt amazing,” he said recently.
If you talk to him for a half-hour on the phone now, you wouldn’t know he ever stuttered. He speaks slowly and deliberately at times, but it is not awkward.
He has good and bad days and still uses Daly’s techniques, but hasn’t seen him in seven months. It’s been more than two years since his big breakthrough — a successful oral presentation during his freshman year that had him on the phone with his mom, Lucille, that night, excitedly saying, “Guess what, Mom … ”
Washington hasn’t given that speech at his high school yet, but he knows there are kids out there who feel trapped and defeated, just like he did.
“Don’t hold your head down,” he said he would tell them. “Everything is going to work out. Whenever you start talking or trying to talk, just take your time.
“If the person is too impatient to understand what you’re going through and can’t wait for you to get the word out, then that’s not really someone that you need to be talking to. Understand who is there for you, because they will be a lot more patient in wanting to hear what you have to say, even if it’s just your name.”