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MSUM professor sees shift in stuttering therapy from fluency to feelings during 40-year career

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Bruce Hanson will retire at the end of this semester after 40 years with the speech language hearing sciences department at Minnesota State University Moorhead, which is also his alma mater. As a certified specialist in fluency disorders who identifies as a person who stutters, he facilitates Fargo-Moorhead's only stuttering support group. Kim Hyatt / Forum News Service2 / 2

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Bruce Hanson's fluency can stumble from a higher level of stress during finals week, but his stuttering isn't as severe as it was growing up.

The 65-year-old recalls not being able to deliver speeches when he was younger. As fellow students went around the classroom taking turns reading paragraphs, he'd watch the clock, hoping the bell would ring before it was his turn.

"I never envisioned I would be a teacher," he said.

Hanson is getting ready to retire after 40 years with the speech language hearing sciences department at Minnesota State University Moorhead, the same department he attended in 1972 for speech therapy and to obtain degrees in speech language pathology.

Hanson's enthusiasm is obvious — unlike his stuttering — when he says researchers are "closer than ever before" in understanding the communication disorder and identifying it early.

Zero-risk brain imaging has been a major breakthrough as well as highly researched approaches like the Lidcombe Program. This Australian program involves speech pathologists giving parents tools that focus on praising a child's fluency and having them repeat stuck words in a positive manner.

While stuttering is well-known, Hanson said there are misunderstandings about its causes. Stuttering is inherited, but still mysterious. People who stutter don't do so because they're shy or nervous, and they aren't less intelligent because of it.

Hanson said his stuttering "wasn't a surprise." His maternal grandfather, whom he didn't know, was a chronic stutterer, and his mother stuttered until she was 16 but recovered.

Despite the disorder's heritability, none of Hanson's three adult children stutter.

"Were we concerned? I think we both were," he said about he and his wife.

Hanson was first told he might be a person who stutters in kindergarten when a teacher sent a note home to his parents, but there were no support services offered in school until he was a senior.

That was 60 years ago, and there is now an abundance of resources and research.

Stuttering support

In addition to teaching, Hanson helped to establish Fargo-Moorhead's only National Stuttering Association (NSA) support group a decade ago that meets monthly in Murray Hall at MSUM.

With no cure for stuttering, creating a place to speak freely without fear or embarrassment is an effective, uplifting way to accept living with the disorder that affects more than 70 million people, according to The Stuttering Foundation.

"Communication is your life," said Cindee Ness, a speech therapist for Sanford Health.

She said she doesn't have a large, consistent caseload of people who experience disfluency. She's now seeing three clients who stutter, which is reflective of the relatively rare disorder.

Ness has been working as a speech language pathologist for 30 years and was a student of Hanson's at MSUM.

"He was just easy to talk to and learn from," she said of Hanson. "He showed his passion for the field as a whole and also for stuttering. Our field is very rewarding helping people communicate."

During a recent meeting at MSUM, two graduate student clinicians came together in an intimate setting to discuss the topic of confidence with two anonymous people who stutter and participate in the NSA support group.

A projector in the room displayed the latest news about stuttering, such as a recent clinical trial of brain stimulation, opposite a poster of the 2010 movie "The King's Speech." The film put stuttering in the spotlight as King George VI learned to communicate effectively with the support of a speech therapist.

While there have been many changes since then, Ness said some basic techniques seen in the film focusing on relaxation and breathing are still part of therapy today.

"You try to help patients so their quality of life and speaking situations are easier for them so they feel more comfortable speaking to different people and in everyday life," she said.

Therapy and support groups for stuttering now focus on improving the quality of life rather than fixing or changing the behavior, Hanson said.

People who stutter can tense up, resulting in more blocks, stammers or repeated and prolonged words. In a relaxed setting like a support group, stuttering may be less frequent. But stuttering is largely situational, meaning no two people who stutter are the same, and there are varying degrees.

Hanson said stuttering wasn't openly discussed among family when he was growing up, and group members agreed, saying they often only talked to a therapist about it.

Hanson was put in a time-out when he stuttered in therapy and said he loved talking, so it was effective in eliminating the behavior. But the approach to stuttering is much different now.

"It's like a 180," Hanson said, "to now taking a look at how the stuttering itself has an impact upon the person's life and how they think and feel about themselves."

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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