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What “The King’s Speech” Teaches Us About Stuttering

The film “The King’s Speech” won the Academy Award for Best Picture [on Sunday night.] The movie has come in for some criticism for its depiction of the political machinations surrounding the abdication of Edward VIII  and Britain’s appeasement of Hitler. The British-born writer Christopher Hitchens, unsparing and deliciously eloquent as always, puts the politics of  George VI in a far less favorable light than the movie does.      

But ”The King’s Speech” has won almost universal praise for its portrayal of the reluctant monarch’s stuttering, a speech pattern that includes involuntary repetition of sounds and syllables and “speech blocks” that cause prolonged pauses. Many young  children who stutter grow out of the problem, but perhaps as many as one in every 100 adults are affected by the condition, 80 percent of whom are men. Stuttering clusters in families, so researchers have been searching for inherited genes that might cause the condition. Last year, in The New England Journal of Medicine, NIH researchers reported some success with results showing an association between three mutated genes and stuttering, although those mutations are probably responsible for a very small minority of cases. 

It’s been said that ”The King’s Speech” will do for stuttering what “Rain Man” did for autism: Plant a sympathetic view of a disability in the public consciousness. One danger of such a quick infusion of awareness, however, is that it can harden into a fixed, if largely favorable, stereotype. We are finding out — or are being reminded — about all the famous people who have stuttered (many of them writers). First-person accounts are popping up all over the place because of the film. The best I’ve come across is by Philip French, a British film critic, who describes vividly what it was like to listen to the radio broadcasts of the real King George VI, wondering if he would make it to the end “like a drunken waiter crossing a polished floor bearing a tray laden with wine glasses.” Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

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