Grad student opens first stuttering support group on campus

Kali Persall,
Managing Editor

First-year Cal State East Bay graduate student Matthew Maxion began stuttering at the age of five. For 16 years, Maxion, now 25, attempted to hide his disfluency, the impairment of smooth fluid speech, from parents, friends and teachers by practicing “covert stuttering,” a concealment strategy where the speaker avoids certain situations or substitutes words that trigger the stutter.

It wasn’t until age 20, when he wrote an article about his experience with stuttering for San Francisco State University’s student newspaper, the Golden Gate Xpress, where he worked as an online editor, that he broke the silence about his disorder.

“That was the first time I was really open and honest about my speech,” Maxion said. “At that moment in my life, my stuttering had gotten so bad, that me trying to conceal my stuttering was more painful and more difficult than it had to be. It got to the point where it was less painful to let my stutter out.”

The Stuttering Foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization that focuses on stuttering treatment and research, defines stuttering as a communicative disorder in which the flow of speech is broken into repetition of letters, prolongations and abnormal stoppages of sounds and symbols.

“It’s painful on an emotional level,” said Maxion. “Imagine having the words in your head and you know exactly what you want to say but you can’t produce those words on a physical level. Its infuriating.”

Maxion said that social situations, stress levels and specific letters — such as words that start with the letters “m”, “n”, “b” or “p” — trigger his stutter.

“I describe stuttering as a roller coaster,” Maxion said. “I really can’t predict if I’m gonna have a fluent day or not. I have my days where I don’t stutter at all and other days I stutter so much.”

Maxion hasn’t received any formal speech therapy yet, but he said there are tricks to dealing with moments of disfluency. He practices a speech technique called “easy onset,” which brings the vocal chords together as a person speaks.

“If I know I’m gonna stutter on a word, I almost breathe into the word,” said Maxion. “For instance if I can’t say the word ‘apple,’ if I stutter on the ‘a’, I would say ‘h-apple’ instead of a-a-apple.”

For the past four years, Maxion has led the East Bay chapter of the National Stuttering Association, a nonprofit organization that provides support, advocacy and research for those affected by stuttering. The support group was open to the stuttering community and initially met at the Weekes Branch Library in South Hayward.

At the start of fall term, Maxion connected with Ai Leen Choo, assistant professor of the Communicative Sciences and Disorders department at East Bay, who also stutters. She helped him secure a space on campus where he relocated the East Bay chapter. The support group opened in October, shortly before International Stuttering Awareness Day on Oct. 22.

Maxion said the goal was to provide a sense of community for East Bay residents who have the disorder, which affects about 70 million people worldwide and three million in the U.S. alone, according to The Stuttering Foundation. Stuttering affects four times as many males as females, reports the foundation.

Around half a dozen people have attended the support group’s first meetings so far, which are scheduled every third Wednesday of every month, according to Maxion. The meetings are open to all community members, not just East Bay students and are free of charge. Outreach has included handing out goodie bags on International Stuttering Awareness Day and through the group’s Facebook page.

Maxion said a typical meeting begins with individual introductions and a communal reading of the NSA’s mission statement. Meetings are loosely structured and over the course of an hour, group members are invited to share their experiences with stuttering.

Maxion said attendees can utilize the space to prepare for job interviews or school presentations. The end of the meetings are devoted to reading the NSA’s “closing statement,” which reassures people who stutter that they aren’t alone.

“It’s such a tight knit group of people,” said Maxion. “It’s awesome, just being in a casual setting and just hanging out with other people who stutter who just get it.”

Genetics, developmental delays in childhood, neurological processing, family dynamics and lifestyles contribute to stuttering, according to The Stuttering Foundation. However Maxion said that research on stuttering is lacking and as a result, is largely misunderstood in society.

“They usually mistake it with a typical disfluency, like ‘he’s nervous so he stutters,’” Maxion said. “People don’t know that much about stuttering. We know more about what stuttering is not more than what it actually is.”

The support group wasn’t created to teach speech therapy, but it will facilitate outings to dinners, movies and holiday parties, social situations that commonly trigger a stutter, according to Maxion.

Maxion said East Bay’s Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, through which he is pursuing his master’s degree, provides a $500 stipend to the group, which can be used for these events.

The group meets on the third Wednesday of every month from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Room 1573 in the Music Building on the Hayward campus.