Earlier this year I was appointed CASA for two brothers: Alex (now age 15) and Trey (age 13). When I first met with the boys, I found Alex to be unusually quiet, removed. Trey, on the other-hand, was talkative, energetic, and engaging. I interpreted Alex’s distant demeanor as his “feeling me out.”
For our initial outing together, I took the boys to get something to eat. Arriving at my car Alex climbed into the back seat which seemed odd to me given he is the oldest. My experience with young men is that older boys generally seek to exhibit their superiority (“pull rank”) whenever possible.
Arriving at the “buffet-style” restaurant (their choice) we each helped ourselves to the vast array of food choices. During the meal, Trey again was extremely talkative and animated while Alex was quiet, responding with a simple “yes” or “no” when I attempted to pull him into whatever was the topic of conversation. Still, I attributed Alex’s virtual silence to his not having established a level of trust with me which certainly was understandable.
Our next outing was to the Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, a good hour’s drive from the boys’ home. For the ride to Baltimore, Alex again climbed into the back seat. Trey occupied the front passenger’s seat and served as my navigator, reading from a MapQuest print-out of directions. Alex was quiet the entire trip.
It was at the museum that I first realized Alex wasn’t merely shy or slow to trust but had a pronounced speech impediment. He stuttered. Growing increasingly comfortable with me, Alex became more talkative but I had difficulty understanding much of what he said. After leaving the museum, I took the boys to a fast-food establishment. There, I observed Alex relay to Trey what he wanted to eat, after which Trey ordered for the two of them. I began to understand the depth of the problem.
With concern for how the stutter might impact his performance in school, my first court report recommended that Alex receive speech therapy. My CASA supervisor agreed with this recommendation. Since that time, the extent of Alex’s speech impediment, and the need for it to be addressed, has only become more apparent.
Recently, my CASA supervisor shared with me several articles/studies on stuttering which I found particularly enlightening. The speech impediment could undermine Alex’s self-confidence and sense of worth; fostering an unwillingness to verbally express him self for fear of embarrassment. Moreover, stuttering can have consequences into adulthood; impacting the ability to make friends and presenting obstacles to future employment success. Ironically, Alex wants to be a rapper.
I learned there are things I can do in my interactions with Alex to help him. They are:
- Not making remarks such as “take a breath” or “slow down” as such remarks can be demeaning;
- Listening to what he is saying and not how he is saying it;
- Maintaining eye contact;
- Not filling in words or finishing his sentences; and
- Speaking in a deliberate, unhurried (but not so slow as to be unnatural) manner.
More than anything, it is important that I be available to talk openly with Alex giving him the freedom to share his feelings (to the extent he is comfortable) about having a stutter. Alex recently entered high school, a critical time in a young man’s development. It is imperative that I help him understand he is not alone in dealing with his speech impediment and that it’s not his fault.
* Michael is a lawyer turned playwright living in Washington, D.C. He has been a CASA Volunteer since 2015.