When 11-year-old Madison Denton ordered a scoop of Americone Dream on a waffle cone at Ben & Jerry’s on Church Street, her mother Sara beamed with pride.
“It took her a moment. She had to repeat, but they were polite,” the elder Denton said.
She explained that the letters “A” and “W” are especially tricky for her daughter, who started stuttering when she was six years old. The Stuttering Foundation describes stuttering as a “communication disorder in which the flow of speech is broken by repetitions, prolongations or abnormal stoppages of sounds and syllables.” Denton was pleased Madison ordered what she wanted instead of settling for something that would have been easier for her to say.
The mother and daughter were part of a “stuttering flash mob” that took place on Wednesday evening. About 20 people — children who stutter, as well as their parents, siblings, friends and supporters — converged on the ice cream parlor to mark the end of a stuttering summer camp for kids ages 7 to 11 organized by the Eleanor M. Luse Center for Communication at the University of Vermont.
At the camp, which met once a week for six weeks in June and July, half a dozen kids from Vermont — led by coordinator Ana O’Neill and volunteer Ben Manning — shared their stuttering experiences. They also designed a board game with questions about stuttering, such as “What percent of people worldwide stutter?” (The answer: 1 percent.) O’Neill said they will replicate the game and send copies to each of the participants’ schools. The campers also prepared fact sheets about stuttering that they planned to distribute on Church Street on the evening of the Ben & Jerry’s outing, but a sudden downpour forced everyone to remain indoors.
Manning, who is also a stutterer, said that mentoring kids who stutter is a “huge part” of his own therapy. He’ll begin a Masters program in Communication Sciences and Disorders at UVM this fall. He kick-started the event by being first in line. He said the staff at Ben & Jerry’s were not given a heads-up about the group’s flash mob, which was also held there last year. The event lasted for just half an hour, but it provided participants with a supportive environment where they could stutter openly, take their time to finish sentences and enjoy ice cream.
“What they say matters more than how they say it,” said O’Neill, a rising second-year graduate student at UVM who, like Manning, hopes to become a speech language pathologist.
Throughout the six weeks, the campers also did other self-empowerment activities, including drawing pictures that represented their stutter and imagining characters that could defeat it.
“This process allowed the kids to externalize their stuttering and talk about it in a kid-friendly way,” said Danra Kazenski, a clinical assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at UVM.
Along with Dr. Barry Guitar, Kazenski is the co-leader of the Burlington chapter of the National Stuttering Association
, which organizes various support group meetings for school-age kids and their parents, teens and adults throughout the year. Though they use UVM space for the casual meetings, these are community groups that aren’t officially tied to the university, said Kazenski.
By attending the parent-focused gatherings, Denton said she’s learned that her daughter’s stutter is not her fault.
“It’s not something that we’ve done,” she said.
The gatherings focus on teaching parents how to help their child cope and not allow their stutter “to hold them back.” Her daughter’s stutter is “a small part of who she is,” Denton said.
These days, Madison is interested in finding out about celebrities — besides pop singer Ed Sheeran — who stutter. She’s also opening up about her stutter to close friends. But Denton said that Madison still has had to deal with peers who rush her, interrupt her mid-sentence or simply walk away.
“It breaks my heart,” Denton admitted.
But she reminds her daughter that “no one is perfect.”
“It’s their lack of knowledge and compassion that made them walk away. It’s not her. It’s about them,” Denton said.
For more information about the Burlington chapter of the National Stuttering Association, visit burlingtonstutters.org