Speaking from experience: Clients bring stuttering awareness to West Edmonton Mall

Inaugural ISTAR Family Fun event teaches children, adults about speech issues

Amanda McCarthy - 13 May 2017

Olivia Ma is your average six-year-old. She likes drawing, visiting the zoo, and playing with her Star Wars figurines-her mother would describe her as a 'ray of sunshine.' But things weren't always so simple for the youngster.

When Olivia was just two years old, her parents discovered there was something different about her speech patterns. Not just different, but nonexistent.

Olivia was first diagnosed with severe receptive and perceptive speech delays, causing her to become nonverbal. Later on, when she began speech therapy, she also learned she had a stutter.

The Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR) held its first annual Family Fun Day at the West Edmonton Mall Centre Stage on Saturday, May 13 from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. for kids like Olivia-and their parents who want more information on speech therapy. The free event, in honour of Speech and Hearing Awareness Month, provided opportunities for both parents and children to learn about stuttering and speech issues. Complete with interactive booths, pictures with Disney princesses, cookie decorating and prizes, the event gave families tips about stuttering and speech issues and the proper steps to take if a stutter is suspected-all while having fun!

With the help of the ISTAR, Olivia was given the tools to express herself freely-something over 300,000 Canadians are still not able to do.

ISTAR, an institute of the University of Alberta's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, offers specialized treatment to children, teens and adults who stutter. And with so many individuals still experiencing speech impairments, their goal is to constantly promote awareness of stuttering and its treatment.

"Individuals who are experiencing a stutter or speech issues may not be able to get the help they need when they need it," said Anwar Haq, executive director, ISTAR. "Early intervention for children who stutter and evidence-based treatment programs delivered by experienced speech-language pathologists are essential.

Negative public perception toward stuttering is another challenge for people who stutter, which is why public awareness events like ISTAR Family Fun Day are so important."

Steven Hansen, 15, sees the benefit of these types of events, as his stutter was not diagnosed until he was 13 years old. That's when life as a teenager changed for him.

"At the beginning it wasn't too bad, but after a while it got really bad," said Steven. "I attended speech therapy for over a year, but things just kept getting worse."

That's when he was referred to ISTAR, and again, his life changed.

"ISTAR helped me regain my confidence. Even though I may have days when I stutter, I now have tools that can help me alleviate that. I can now do simple things like order food, talk to a store clerk, and give presentations. I realize now that there is nothing wrong with me. I have my self-esteem back."

And confidence is something Kathy Ma has also seen flourish in her daughter since her treatment at the institute.

"To see your child going from complete frustration, only being able to scream because she can't express herself in any other way, to being able to effectively retell me a story is amazing. I thank ISTAR and our speech therapist Shea Thompsen for that."

Olivia agrees: "Shea has helped me have no bumps with my words!"

With the creation of this annual event, ISTAR hopes more people will be aware of the symptoms of stuttering and seek out the correct treatment.

"People used to ask me, 'What's wrong with your daughter?' not knowing exactly what was happening with her-that she had speech issues. Everyone needs to know that there is an organization like ISTAR out there who can help and support people who are going through the same thing Olivia was," said Kathy.

Now that both Steven and Olivia have found the proper methods for managing their speech issues, they want to help other people do the same.

"It was great to be able to talk to people one-on-one at the event," said Steven. "I hope that I could be an inspiration to at least one person who stutters and show them that there is hope for them too."

If you think you or your child are experiencing speech issues, visit istar.ualberta.ca to book an assessment.