Apodaca: 'King's Speech' shedding light on stuttering

Kate Allen looks like the quintessential California girl, with her soft blond hair, a girl-next-door smile and lovely, ocean-colored eyes.

The Corona del Mar High School freshman likes hanging out with her friends and rowing on a crew team. She dreams of pursuing a nursing or other medical career someday.

But she also has something in common with an erstwhile British monarch: She stutters.

Kate was an infant when we first became neighbors, and I've watched her grow over the years into a gracious and composed young woman. I can only imagine how the burden of coping with a little-understood condition has shaped her young life.

But when she stopped by my house earlier this week, Kate displayed maturity beyond her years by shrugging off any suggestion that she's had it tough.

"I tell myself every day, it's not that big of a deal," she said. "I was kind of mad that I had it, but I've accepted it and realize that if this is the worst I have, it's not like having a bad disease."

I was motivated to talk to Kate after "The King's Speech" won the Academy Award for best picture. The film is a dramatic account of King George VI's attempt to cope with a severe stutter as World War II begins.

I asked Kate to share her thoughts on what it's like to live with a stutter, and about the newfound attention that the condition is receiving. Her confidence and good-natured openness made me wonder if the world is changing for those who share her affliction.

An estimated 3 million Americans stutter. For decades, little progress was made toward understanding the causes of the disorder and finding effective, long-lasting treatments. Over the years, a vast array of therapeutic techniques and products has been employed, ranging from the moderately helpful to outright scams.

Most stuttering treatments have focused on behavioral therapy; that is, trying to teach stutterers breathing and speaking techniques to alleviate symptoms.

But there is now some promising research being conducted that could lead to a dramatic improvement in stuttering treatment, and it turns out that Orange County is at the epicenter of this development.

UC Irvine's Kirkup Center for the Medical Treatment of Stuttering is the first organization in the world dedicated to the medicinal treatment of stuttering. The center is the brainchild of UCI psychiatrist Gerald Maguire, who has dedicated his life to understanding and treating the disorder that has afflicted him since age 3.

The center is named for Newport Beach telecom executive Granville Kirkup, also a stutterer, who has provided funding for the enterprise.

Maguire is convinced that stuttering is rooted in genetics, a theory that is supported by brain imaging studies showing that stutterers have high levels of the chemical dopamine in the language centers of the brain.

Armed with these findings, Maguire has been experimenting with drugs that have shown great potential in lessening stuttering symptoms. He has tested several antipsychotic medicines, but some of the results have been less than desirable because of severe side effects.

He has high hopes for asenapine and pagoclone, which have shown fewer adverse effects, but Maguire said that more research and testing lies ahead. Still, he's optimistic that he's on track to find a medical treatment that, together with ongoing speech therapy, will provide the relief that stutterers have long awaited.

The attention to stuttering due to the success of "The King's Speech" can only help, Maguire said.

"This movie has done us just wonders," he said. "I think it's very much a turning point."

Maguire said the film was accurate in its depiction of the isolation sometimes felt by stutterers, and the types of treatments given during the time period depicted. He was particularly moved by a scene in which the king encountered a young boy in a therapist's waiting room and realized, perhaps for the first time, that another shared his condition.

The king's fear of public speaking also resonated with Maguire, who has intentionally put himself in the public eye as a means to conquer his own fear, as well as to educate others.

Kate has also taken on the challenge of public speaking. While still in middle school, she stood in front of her church congregation and gave a speech in which she solicited donations for a charity she started that raises money to buy soccer goals and nets for children in Mexico. The Daily Pilot featured Kate and her charity in a January 2010 story.

She has also raised funds for the cause by donating the money she has earned cooking meals for busy moms. To date, she has raised about $2,700.

Kate believes that her stuttering will one day be "fixed," but until then, she said, "I'm really OK with who I am."

She is glad to see that other people are at last realizing that stutterers "can be strong leaders."

After she left my house, I sat quietly and thought about what Kate said, which seemed pretty profound for someone who is turning 15 next month. I also thought about her courage and determination in refusing to let her affliction rule her life.

Perhaps young Kate has discovered the best medicine of all.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World