Rhodes Scholar writes a children’s book inspired by her ISTAR experience

With the help of SLP techniques, Tess Casher’s main character in Sleuths in Skates solves crimes and becomes a more confident speaker in the process.

Shirley Wilfong-Pritchard - 12 January 2024

When Tess Casher attended the Institute for Stuttering Treatment and Research (ISTAR) programs back in 2017-19, little did she realize that within a few years, she would be studying for a master’s degree in English at the University of Oxford and writing a book for kids based on her ISTAR experience.

ISTAR is a self-funded institute of the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. In addition to offering specialized treatment to people of all ages who stutter, it conducts research, promotes awareness and delivers advanced professional training for speech-language pathology (SLP) students and clinicians. 

Casher was born in B.C., where her daycare teacher soon noticed she had a stutter. By age five, her parents — both international school teachers — had moved the family to Qatar. While she saw various speech therapists in Qatar, her stutter persisted. When she moved to the Yukon 10 years later, she received the specialized treatment she needed to build a healthy relationship with her way of speaking.

ISTAR experience

Due to limited local SLP services, the Yukon Department of Education contracted ISTAR to help its students with speaking difficulties. Soon Casher became an online client, eventually attending the adult summer speaking intensive in Edmonton in 2019. 

“That’s when I fell in love with ISTAR,” says Casher. “I had no idea speech therapy could look like this. There was something very empowering about working on speech dysfluency in a community, listening to other people’s experience with stammering and feeling incredibly seen and heard by the ISTAR team.”

ISTAR took Casher’s personal speaking goals and developed a program to meet them, checking in with her every step of the way. “ISTAR helped me tackle the challenges I really wanted to address in a way that worked incredibly well for me,” says Casher.


Casher completed her International Baccalaureate at Pearson College, where she experienced the magic of being in a community of passionate, excited learners on the B.C. coast. At Pearson, she performed a TEDx Talk on The Art of Stuttering, the first time she spoke publicly about the issue.

“I had lots of interesting conversations after that TEDx Talk,” she says. “There were things I didn’t realize people didn’t know about stuttering — like it gets worse for me in certain situations, I’ve always had a stutter, or what it’s like using a technique.”

In 2019, Casher was awarded the Marjorie Young Bell Scholarship to attend Mount Allison University, where she studied English language and literature. “It was a massive investment in me as a person and was truly life-changing,” says Casher.

As co-president of the Mount Allison University Student Refugee Program of the World University Service of Canada, Casher helped secure funding for refugee students to attend Mount Allison and helped welcome them to campus by connecting them with campus resources, joining them with active Mount Allison communities, and decorating their dorm rooms, which Casher describes as “taking raised-by-a-Grade-2-teacher energy into the world.”

Casher received several awards for outstanding academic achievement, including the Bryce McKiel Essay Prize, which affirmed her choice to pursue writing, and a Reisman Internship that funds student entrepreneurial projects and allowed her to produce a first draft of Sleuths in Skates.

Writing a book

Sleuths in Skates follows the story of Ingrid, who just moved to Ridgewater, Ontario, a fictional place in the middle of nowhere. Ingrid feels uncomfortable with her stammer at a new school but finds a sense of community in the Spiralette figure skating team. Soon a series of pranks befalls the rink and Ingrid must transfer the skills and techniques she learned in speech therapy to her real-world situation to solve the mystery.

Casher says that most stories about stuttering involve the subject working hard to overcome their speaking difficulties and achieve fluency. In her story, by contrast, Ingrid develops a positive relationship with her SLP techniques and becomes more comfortable and confident talking. “The positive role of ISTAR is definitely baked into it,” says Casher.

“I wanted to provide a representation of stammering that shows how you can kindly and compassionately communicate with someone who stutters. Yes, someone stutters, but they’re also so much more — like a figure-skating, crime-solving, book-loving expert!” 

Casher adds, “To anyone who’s stuttering, don’t worry. You are completely worthy of the conversational space. What you have to say is incredibly valuable. Find conversations or modes of speaking that are joyous and meaningful to you. Find what makes you excited and the avenues that work for you to share it. There are so many amazing things you can offer the world. Don’t count yourself out of the race before it begins.”

To the person who’s listening to someone experiencing a stutter, Casher says, “Don’t fill in their words for them. Respond to the content of what they’re saying, not their stuttering. Stay actively engaged in the conversation; don’t rush to end it. In larger groups, hold longer pauses for someone to join the conversation. Some people appreciate being called upon while others may not. If you have a relationship with the person who stammers, you can ask them what you can do to help in those situations.”

ISTAR support

Holly Lomheim, clinical director of ISTAR, and Ashley Saunders, SLP at the Edmonton branch read several drafts of Sleuths in Skates. They provided feedback along the way, particularly around terminology, accuracy of techniques and representation of the Camperdown program, a treatment for adults and adolescents who stutter.

“Ashley and I were thrilled to support Tess,” says Lomheim. “She was very receptive to our feedback and approached the topic of stuttering and speech therapy in her novel with respect and compassion.”

“A few of my teen clients have read the book as part of our therapy sessions and have really enjoyed it,” adds Lomheim. “It has sparked great conversations about stuttering and speech therapy, just as we all hoped it would.”

The proceeds from the sale of Sleuths in Skates will be donated to ISTAR and the book will be used to supplement clinical training.

What’s next

Having a stammer has not held Casher back from achieving her dreams. She is currently a Rhodes Scholar, working toward a master’s degree in modern and contemporary English literature at the University of Oxford. She plans to apply to PhD programs to study how literary representations of speech dysfluency contribute to or disentangle stammering stereotypes and how the stuttering approach to communication can provide new avenues into writing and the literary field.

“I want to reiterate and underscore my gratitude,” says Casher. “Confident fluent speakers are not made in isolation. They’re a product of incredible support from a community of active ISTAR networks, SLPs, and participants. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to the ISTAR team for showing me the kind of person I can be.”