Visit BSA's new blog. It'll tell you something about the BSA – what we do, how we do it, stories we encounter, stories that move us. Perhaps it will also make us think about the everyday stuff we do, take for granted, and don’t realise we never told anyone we’re doing them.
The Oxford Dysfluency Conference which ended yesterday started off with a presentation by Prof SE Chang from the University of Michigan talking about her findings of "Subtle differences in brain network connectivity in children who stutter".
Now, to understand that, you'd first have to appreciate the enormous achievement of making 90 children, some as young as 3 years, lay still in an MRI scanner. If you've ever been in an MRI scanner you'll know that movement of a few millimetres either way can invalidate the readings. It takes about 40mins per reading, and it’s quite noisy so potentially very scary and very boring for the children who have to be awake and alert. She and her team managed with a significant amount of pre-scan work desensitising the children to the sudden loud noises, and hand-holding during the scan. And videos!
This research is important because without it we wouldn’t know if the previously observed differences in the brains of young adults and adults who stammer are the potential cause of stammering, or merely the way the brain adapts to many years of stammering.
Just as in studies with older people who stammer, Professor Chang has found significant differences in the amount and structure of white matter in certain part of the brain that connect different regions which are essential for an effective delivery of speech. White brain matter is the 'cabling network' that allows different regions of the brain to relay information between each other and coordinates them.
To me, this seems to finally settle the question whether we stammer because our brains are different, or whether our brains are different because we stammer. It also opens up the way for new forms of therapy, yet to be developed, which may combine speech therapy with rehabilitation methods which encourage the development of neural connections.
I was particularly interested in her message to people who stammer who find the idea that their brains are different difficult to adjust to. It can sound like we’re ‘abnormal’, or it can sound like stammering is an unavoidable fate and nothing can be done, none of which are true.
My feeling has always been that these differences are very subtle, and in the normal range of brain differentiation – perhaps in the same way that some people are really good at spatial awareness while others aren’t. If this difference were in regions of our brain that control less complex functions (eg walking) I suspect no-one would ever notice the difference, but because speaking is the most complex function the brain needs to fulfil, even subtle differences can have a significant and noticeable impact.
Professor Chang agreed, but added the following two comments: the difference we have seen are differences in the brain matter relating to connectivity between regions of the brain. Speaking as a brain function is heavily reliant on the smooth cooperation between a significant number of regions of the brain so is especially susceptible to disruption. And she made it clear that these are group findings, not individual ones. It is simply not possible with current technology to look at a brain of a single child, or a single adult, and determine whether that person stammers or not. However, even today she states that individual results from boys (not girls) who stutter showed values that were entirely different from the control group and may possibly be used in future to reliably identify stammering in a child. Professor Chang urges caution but hopes to have results soon.
Have you heard of STUC? The Stammering through University Campaign? It's the brainchild of Claire Norman, a young graduate who stammers, and who went through her course realising that there's a big hole at her University where stammering awareness and support ought to be. So she secured a grant to start her own social enterprise to ensure that everyone at Britain's Universities is clued up about stammering and able to get support. That's "everyone" as in students, lecturers, non-academic staff, cleaners, caterers, you name it. She's already got Warwick and Newcastle Universities signed up, held her first Focus group, and is developing the first Action Plan. All of that on top of finishing her degree, finding work, moving house and starting her new job on Monday!
The Employers Stammering Network has as its ultimate goal to change the world of employment for people who stammer - better support, less prejudice and equal chances. ESN and STUC seemed like a perfect fit to learn more about each other - University leads (hopefully) to employment, and as STUC is also concerned about people employed by the Universities there are areas where we may well overlap. Young people who stammer can find it particularly difficult to secure their first job - and if we can point them to employers who are clued up about stammering and have recruitment policies in place it's a win-win for the students but also for the employers who have access to a pool of talented people. So we had a meeting kindly hosted at EY (formerly Ernst and Young) between Iain Wilkie (Co-Chair, ESN), Ricky Vachhani (Co-Chair, EY Stammering Network), myself and Claire to get to know each other a bit better and see where we can support each other.
STUC is such an excellent model because it's run by Claire who can draw on BSA and ESN support and expertise when required - but it is separate of the BSA. It's that 'get up and go', 'let's do something about this' spirit which demonstrates that people who stammer can easily excel in roles that demand leadership. It's also an excellent demonstration of how BSA, with its limited resources, can act as a catalyst and support to help get initiatives like STUC off the ground.
... about stammering.
But this one will be different! And fabulous! It will hopefully make you think, rethink, consider, reconsider. It may well irritate you, too. It'll be opinionated. You'll be glad to hear it won't just be my opinion, though: guest bloggers are most welcome!
It'll tell you something about the BSA – what we do, how we do it, stories we encounter, stories that move us. Perhaps it will also make us think about the everyday stuff we do, take for granted, and don’t realise we never told anyone we’re doing them. But it will also be a place to tell stories, happy stories or not so happy ones, a place for musings as well as a place for humour.
It's the BSA Blog and it may come as no surprise that BSA has views on things. Or, rather, “Views™ on Things”. All views on stammering can be valid for the person who stammers who’s holding them but they can’t all be equal – equally accurate, equally evidenced, or equally helpful.
BSA is required to ensure we provide views and information on stammering that are accurate, evidenced (where possible) and helpful. We don’t always get this right, to be honest, but where we don’t we ought to be called out and held to account.
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