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

March 04, 2011|By Patrice Apodaca
(Kent Treptow | kent.tretpwo@latimes.com )

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."

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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.

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