‘I knew other kids had stutters too, but I always felt very alone’

A drama camp for children who stammer is giving its young actors a new voice and a sense of belonging

Back row: Aisling Keogh and Dr Jonathon Linklater of the Irish Stammering Association with students, from left, Lydia McCrea, Shona Sullivan, Farrah Cleary, Niamh O’Brien, Aine Hyndman, Alice Patton, front, Noah Skelly and Andrew Myler. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Back row: Aisling Keogh and Dr Jonathon Linklater of the Irish Stammering Association with students, from left, Lydia McCrea, Shona Sullivan, Farrah Cleary, Niamh O’Brien, Aine Hyndman, Alice Patton, front, Noah Skelly and Andrew Myler. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

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On an overcast but hot summer day, a group of young actors pair off at Dublin’s Liffey Trust Studios. They take turns leading each other around the room while their partner keeps their eyes closed.

It’s just one of the warm-up exercises at the ISAYiT! Drama Camp for children who stammer. Next, the group rehearse the piece they will perform for their parents that afternoon, holding masks, moving together as a group and then apart.

Dr Jonathon Linklater.
Dr Jonathon Linklater.

Though more males than females stammer – at least 4:1 – the group is divided equally between boys and girls, with ages ranging from eight to 16. Actor Charlie Hughes is at the helm, supported by Aisling Keogh and Dr Jonathon Linklater of the Irish Stammering Association, both speech and language therapists.

Over the week, each of the group has created a character for the performance. All, to the surprise of organisers and parents, have chosen to speak lines. “I start on the premise that it’s going to be a physical piece,” says Hughes. “It’s the kids themselves that come and ask for lines. Jonathon has explained to me how all their lives these kids have avoided situations where they have to speak, yet all of a sudden they’re asking me for lines. It’s totally down to them.”

The ISA began running drama workshops in collaboration with the Gaiety School of Acting when they saw the success of a similar project in New York. “It was about trying to create a space where kids could talk and not worry about being judged,” says Linklater. He is development manager with the ISA and has a stammer himself. “There’s a range in how people stutter, but it’s great for them to meet and know that they’re not the only one. Everybody here this week stutters, apart from Charlie and Aisling.”

There is no known cause or cure for stammering, explains Linklater. There does, however, seem to be a family connection, which he is currently researching. “There are also many different types of stammers, and complex reasons why some people continue to stutter and some don’t, and how it changes over time.”

Sense of isolation

One common theme, however, is a sense of isolation. “We’re trying to normalise it by getting kids to meet other kids who stutter, to try and take away some of that isolation. It’s about them trying out new things, using their voice and finding out they can have fun with it, and building trust and confidence. Even in four days, I’ve seen confidence differences. As a speech therapist I wouldn’t always be worried about how fluent somebody is. It’s about teaching them to care less about it.”

Áine Hyndman.
Áine Hyndman.

Áine Hyndman and Niamh O’Brien sit down to chat. They realise as they talk that they both enjoy the same music bands – 21 Pilots and Panic! At The Disco – and love to sing. They don’t stutter when they sing.

It is 13-year-old Áine’s second year at the camp. She had known nobody else who stammered: “I’m the only one in my entire school.” She returned: “because I had so much fun last time”.

So what does she like best about it? “One, you get to make friends. Two, acting helps you be braver when you’re speaking out.”

Niamh is the oldest girl – one boy is also 16 – but says the age differences haven’t mattered. “I was expecting it to be awkward but it’s so much fun. I’ve made so many friends and I’m way more confident.”

Niamh O'Brien.
Niamh O'Brien.

She developed her stutter at 10. “My brother used to have a stutter, but his just went away. I always knew other kids had stutters too, but I didn’t know them so I always felt very alone, but I don’t any more.”

‘Extraordinary transformation’

This was Hughes’ second year working with ISAYiT!. “It’s quite an extraordinary transformation to see what happens when they feel safe and they meet kids who have the same problem. I find that the biggest achievement is to get them to drop their guard. Some tell me about their experiences of how cruel other kids can be. You have to build up a resistance to that and their way is to put a shield up. My first job is to get them to drop that shield a little bit. Getting a kid to trust you enough to look you in the eye when they talk is a big deal.”

Most of the group are from Dublin, but eight-year-old Alice Patton travelled from Strabane in Co Tyrone with her mum Sonia. “I was so enthused as I knew it was right up Alice’s street. She loves her singing and her dancing and her drama. She wants to express herself and when she is expressing herself you find that the stammer is less. It really seems to chill her out.”

Patton has seen a marked difference in Alice since the week began. “She’s really happy and bubbly and full of fun. The stuttering doesn’t seem to be bothering her as much. I think she’s also a lot clearer. She’s projecting her voice more and speaking out. She’s definitely more confident. Even in the place we’re staying she went up to the reception last night and asked for sugar!”

One of the week’s highlights, according to Hughes, was bringing the group to “find their voice”at the open-air amphitheatre behind Dublin City Council offices on Wood Quay. “The engineering is amazing. There’a raised circular platform and in the centre is a circle. If you stand into that circle you can whisper or speak at a normal volume and be heard crystal clear. Your voice will actually come back to you. You’d want to see what happens when these kids stand in there and hear the power of their own voice. Even their demeanour changes. They rise up out of themselves. It is an extraordinary thing.”

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