James Richardson, 36, has stuttered his entire life. The co-owner of Marvin's Seafood on Dorchester Road has customers who laugh at him when he struggles to finish a sentence.
He laughs, too, to make the moment pass faster.
Now, his 5-year-old son Walker stutters, and James Richardson sees a future of titters during classroom presentations and, even into the adulthood, people who think his disorder is comical.
"I know what it was like going through that," he said.
Stuttering can mean repeating and prolonging sounds. Or, it could be a complete block with no sound. People may roll their eyes or tilt their heads. A host of secondary behaviors, tapping feet or snapping fingers, can develop as people try different ways to make it stop.
Speech-language pathologist Caroline Pittard works with Goose Creek Primary School students who stutter on pacing their speech, or "stretching."
"The bumpies" is how 5-year-old Chris Barrett describes what happens sometimes when he talks. "You have to keep on saying it all over," he said.
When asked what he wants people to do when he stutters, he said, "I want them to be nice. And don't talk." Having others finish sentences for them is a pet peeve of people who stutter, Pittard said.
She understands intimately what her students
face because she, too, stutters. Growing up, she avoided situations that could expose her speech disorder. She didn't make a phone call until she was in high school, for fear her words would catch.
Pittard compared a person's disposition to stutter to a loaded gun. Precipitating factors, such as heredity and stressors — changing schools or the birth of a sibling — may load the weapon, but what actually pulls the trigger is poorly understood.
The brain has two sides, or hemispheres. The left side is usually responsible for verbal tasks and sorting details. The right hemisphere is primarily nonverbal and intuitive, more "big-picture" thinking.
Brain imaging shows that people who stutter have high levels of activity in their right hemispheres, the opposite of what happens in the brains of nonstuttering speakers. Why this occurs is the subject of conjecture, Pittard said.
Stuttering begins to surface between age 2 and 5. Many children go through a period of stuttering, Pittard said, but telling them apart from children who will not recover on their own should be left to a speech pathologist.
Richardson knew his son was destined to stutter at age 3, when Walker tightened his neck muscles and tapped his foot, the identical efforts James Richardson used as a child to get the words out.
The speech disorder is prevalent in Richardson's family. All the men on his father's side stuttered, along with a handful of cousins, he said. The high rate among men — nearly four men to one woman — suggests a genetic component.
Experts say early intervention is key. The youngest have yet to develop a complex of behaviors and embarrassment around their stuttering, Pittard said. Treatments vary by individual and include speech therapy, pharmaceuticals and delayed auditory feedback devices. One such device, Speech-Easy, which has been much publicized, alters the way a person hears his own voice with a time delay and frequency change. But Pittard has heard mixed reviews.
Even getting treatment can be a struggle, however. The Richardsons are fighting with insurance to cover Walker's speech therapy.
"It tears you up as a parent because you can't get him the therapy," said his mother, Denise. "It can affect the job you're going to get, your ability to make a living." The family pays for treatment at Trident Medical Center.
Pittard worked hard at her therapy, and still does, she said. Stuttering will always be there.
"It comes and it goes, and you have no idea," Pittard said. "It just feels like everything closes up, and you can't get anything out however much you try."
Facts about stuttering
--About 1 percent of people all over the world stutter. In the United States, about 3 million people are affected.
--Most people who stutter do not stutter when singing or when talking to animals or small children.
--Famous people who stutter or stuttered: Marilyn Monroe, James Earl Jones, Tiger Woods, Julia Roberts, Winston Churchill and Bruce Willis.
--Stuttering affects nearly four times as many boys as girls.
--People who stutter know what they want to say, they just sometimes have difficulty saying it.
--People who stutter are as intelligent as people who do not stutter.
--When talking with a person who stutters, listen patiently and maintain eye contact.
--Do not finish their sentences, and when you speak, do so in an unhurried way.
--Telling people to slow down or think about what they are trying to say does not help.