Why I Became a Speech-Language Pathologist

One day, as I sat at my speech table doing therapy with a very precious little boy, he looked up at me and said something that I’ll never forget.  With big, brown eyes and the most endearing, shy smile you have ever seen, he said, “You are Girl Optimus Prime.”  I smiled and said, ‘oh, thank you’.  Not knowing what exactly he was talking about.  I told my husband that night what he had said and my husband explained it to me.

There isn’t a Girl Optimus Prime.  But there IS a transformer called Optimus Prime.  I had seen the Transformers movie, but forgot exactly who he was and his role.  Sorry.  My husband was shocked I didn’t remember.  Ha.  After Googling “Optimus Prime” my heart kind of skipped a beat.  That sweet little boy said I was, “Girl Optimus Prime.” Wikipedia said that Optimus Prime was the leader of a group called, “Autobots” (the good guys) who fight against the bad guys known as, “Decepticons.”  Here is the very cool description of Optimus…

Optimus Prime’s motto is this, “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings. No sacrifice is too great in the service of freedom.”  (Optimus Prime) is depicted as a brave, powerful, wise and compassionate leader who puts his talent to use improving the universe around him.  Optimus is portrayed as having a strong sense of justice and righteousness and has dedicated himself to the protection of all life, particularly the inhabitants of planet Earth.”  Wow.  Yes, please.  I’ll be Girl Optimus Prime.  Isn’t that what is in our hearts as SLPs? It has been in my  heart for years.  I am forever passionate about helping people and when I see something that is just not right, I want to do whatever I can to make it right.

It just hit me so hard.  What did that little guy see or realize that day that he would come up with such a comparison – and one that I will never forget? How did he know that yes indeed I was his, “SLP Girl Optimus Prime”? I was so proud of my new title! Did he really see me as someone who was sent to fight for him and help him experience a level of freedom?  It touched a deep place in my heart, whether or not he knew what he was saying.  It reminded me of why I spent 7 years in school, accrued students loans I’m still paying on…etc. etc.  I’ll forever be, “Girl Optimus Prime”! I think many of us SLPs have a huge heart of compassion and a strong desire to help others.  That is my heart and my motivation for becoming an SLP.  I want to be the “good guy” who makes a difference.  No matter how hard it is, if I can bring someone closer to feeling the joy and freedom of life beyond or in spite of a communication deficit, it is more than worth it.

I know all too well what it means to be “held hostage,” so to speak, by a communication disorder.  Communication disorders can hinder people and cause them to shy away from things they might otherwise be bold enough to do.  Sometimes, a stutter, a loss of language after a stoke, or a severe phonological disorder can become the thing that holds them back, and in essence, traps them.  The “simple” task of talking is an obstacle in their path – and one that may feel impossible to overcome.  I’ve seen kids shy away from things they want to do because they are held back by their speech or language deficit.  Granted, this isn’t everyone, but I think it is true for quite a few.

So here is my story about why I became an SLP.  My story is very personal and I hope my raw and even blunt way of saying things doesn’t bother you.  I truly have a heart of compassion for people and especially those who struggle to fit in, are different, or feel singled-out.  The reason why I am an SLP is because of my sweet and amazing baby brother.  He is all grown up now, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t still my baby brother.  My brother stuttered throughout childhood and during his school age years he received speech therapy.  He had lovely Speech-Language Pathologists who did so much to help him.  He may have learned some techniques that helped him to “stutter more fluently,” but he didn’t become fluent and he continued to really struggle to talk.  It broke my heart to see what stuttering had done to my precious brother.  Not only did teachers and his peers misunderstand the disorder, but they were cruel.  Kids bullied and teased him throughout junior high.  Arrogant, uneducated teachers acted as if he should, and I quote, “just be able to say it right if he wanted to.”  They didn’t understand the nature of the disorder at all.  And a few of his teachers were unnecessarily mean to him – calling upon him to read aloud and even standing over his shoulder making exasperated sighs when it took him a while to finish a simple sentence.  It makes me want to cry just remembering the heartache that those insensitive teachers caused.  Reading was very hard for my brother.  He had become pretty good at word-avoiding in conversation in order to stay fluent as long as possible.  He would very purposefully avoid certain sounds and words that just always made him get stuck.  But when reading, you can’t substitute words or skip sounds.  Because of what I saw my brother go through, I knew I had to help him somehow.

I think it is so important to educate teachers and those who are the adults in our student’s lives regarding the communication difficulties their students’ might have.  A person who stutters cannot “just talk right” if they want to.  Some teacher’s ignorance still makes my blood boil.  I know this is not true for all of you very accommodating and caring teachers reading this! I know that there are amazing teachers who wouldn’t treat their students who stutter this way.  Anyway, my precious brother endured a lot of ridicule from mean kids at school – he certainly didn’t need to be set-up for more humiliation by teachers in the classroom.  Can you tell I’m just a bit a protective of him?  That’s what big sisters are for, right?

Speech therapy helped a little bit, but by 5th grade, my brother had had enough.  It was bad enough facing his critical peers and teachers on a daily basis, but then getting singled-out and pulled-out of class twice a week was just too much.  He told my parents he was done with speech therapy.  They saw his point and agreed that the added embarrassment of getting pulled out of class was just too much for him to bear.  So pull-out, speech therapy stopped. But the cruelty of kids did not.  Junior high was filled with bullying, more reading aloud in class and more oral reports.  Then came school dances and girls and…rejection.  Ugh.  Let’s face it, junior high is hard for us all to some degree, but just add stuttering to the mix.

High school got better for my sweet brother as he found a solid group of friends in whom he trusted and who were basically an answer to our family’s prayers.  He came alive when he was surrounded by a great group of accepting friends.  I loved watching him blossom and become himself as a high-schooler.  The challenges he faced in elementary school and junior high didn’t just go away, but he was able to find his own identity despite the cruelties.  My brother discovered he was more than “the kid who stuttered” or “the kid who couldn’t read and talk right.”  He excelled at soccer and roller hockey and soon found recognition as a really good athlete.  He was (and is) a braniac and excelled in high school (and later college) physics, biology, and calculus! (So not fair).  He is a civil engineer now and builds homes! He is also gifted musically – first chair for trumpet in the high school band.  He also can sing and he plays guitar.  He is hilariously funny. He even tried out for the high school cheerleading squad with some of his guy friends – and they made it.  They liked to call themselves the, “stunt team.”  He played in our church youth group’s worship band and enjoyed going on trips to church camp with the youth group.  What am I saying?  I guess my point is that behind a communication disorder there lies an immensely precious person! There is so much you don’t see because maybe that person is in hiding or is being held “hostage” by their speech disorder.  Or worse, they become victims of other people’s false labels.  It makes me sad to know that others refused to see past his stuttering.  I cried a lot over my brother’s struggles.  It just wasn’t right.

I don’t like when I hear people say so and so is “a stutterer.”  That is a big no-no.  It’s kind of like nails on a chalkboard to my SLP ears! No, we must always remember that a communication disorder is only one part of the equation.  People are first.  So please always use the phrase, “a person who stutters”… or whatever it is.  A person shouldn’t be defined by their communication disorder.

The summer of my brother’s junior year of high school he came to live with me at UCSB.  During my undergraduate work, I had the honor and privilege of working for Dr. Rodger Ingham as his research assistant.  He is probably the most brilliant professor and person I know! He has developed one of the most effective therapies and treatment programs for people who stutter.  I asked my professor if I could bring my brother to the lab to go through the program.  Dr.  Ingham was leaving that summer to travel and wouldn’t be staying in Santa Barbara, but he agreed and gave me full access to his UCSB lab/equipment and allowed me to implement the whole program for my brother.  I was nervous and wondering how I would do it without Dr. Ingham there to talk to.  But he assured me he would be available via email should I need to contact him.  After a summer of intense treatment, my brother reached fluency for the first time in his life.  He could read, speak in a monologue format and talk on the telephone with nearly 100%, perfect fluency.  I need to find his “before and after” VHS tape to show you all.  I’d have to get them converted to DVD first though.  There were many, many tears shed in those halls at UCSB that summer.  It was a dream come true for me to finally help my brother…and his confidence only increased from that point on.

So the reason I became an SLP was for my brother.  I wanted to help him.  I remember thinking, ‘I want to figure out a way to help him stop stuttering’.  I couldn’t bear to watch him struggle and get beaten down for something he couldn’t help.  My prayers were answered.  Although there is no “cure” for stuttering, he learned how to maintain fluency.  He overcame a huge obstacle in his life.  I am forever grateful to my professor Dr. Rodger Ingham for his faith in me and allowing me to use the program to help my brother.  (Dr. Ingham presents at ASHA at various times so be sure to take his seminar to learn more about the MPI program).

I have seen (and know) people who stutter and who are not held back by it.  They don’t seem to mind if they are not fluent.  It does not present for them the huge obstacle that it did for my brother and others I have worked with.

So that is my story.  I’m Girl SLP Optimus Prime – on a mission to help people get freedom from the communication disorders (or Decepticons) that have tried to tear them down.  I know you all feel that way, too.  We SLPs are our own special breed of “Autobots” who have paid (and continue to pay) a price to do all we can to help our clients get free.

I dedicate this post to my amazing little brother, who I hope won’t kill me for telling the world his story! I love you, Feddy! Oops..I also hope he doesn’t mind that I just used his silly nickname, Feddy. I better stop here if I know what’s good for me.

I love all of you ‘SLP Optimus Primes’ out there! Thanks for reading! And keep up the awesome job.

Why did you become an SLP?


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