Dr. Gerald Maguire
Dr. Gerald Maguire says of “The King’s Speech”: “The movie really captured that anticipatory anxiety, the fear around speech, and the frustration that people who stutter have even today in seeking relief of their symptoms.” Steve Zylius / University Communications

One of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, “The King’s Speech” — which tells the true story of how England’s King George VI overcame his speaking impediment — has also received praise for accurately portraying the plight of people who stutter.

Dr. Gerald Maguire should know. Founder of the world’s first clinic dedicated specifically to the scientific study and medical treatment of stuttering, the UC Irvine associate professor of psychiatry & human behavior says he can’t recall a time in his life when he didn’t stutter.

“The movie really captured that anticipatory anxiety, the fear around speech, and the frustration that people who stutter have even today in seeking relief of their symptoms,” says Maguire, the Sidney & Granville Kirkup Chair in Psychiatry & Human Behavior for the Treatment of Stuttering.

He also directs the Kirkup Center for the Medical Treatment of Stuttering at UC Irvine Medical Center, where he works with clinical psychologist David Franklin to help stuttering patients from around the world.

Experts no longer believe that stuttering is caused solely by nervousness or stress. After studying brain images of people who stutter, Maguire confirmed that there’s a neurological basis for the disorder. He noticed higher levels of dopamine in the areas of the brain responsible for speech. Since that discovery more than a decade ago, Maguire has led large-scale clinical trials of promising drugs to limit stuttering.

“What patients and the medical community need to understand is that breakdowns in speech are not the result of emotional instability or anxiety alone,” he says. “They can occur because of physical changes in the brain, and effective treatment for stuttering can require pharmaceuticals.”

A frequent lecturer at global symposia and regular contributor to medical journals, Maguire also devotes his time to responding to the stream of e-mails he receives from people who stutter — people who wonder if there might be help available for this disorder that’s so personally painful and, in many ways, still so misunderstood.

Maguire shares his own story in Without Hesitation: Speaking to the Silence & the Science of Stuttering, which he co-authored with Lisa Gordon Wither. The book, published last year, explores the medical condition from his insider’s perspective.

“Stuttering causes confusion in families, contempt in the uninformed and anguish in the millions of people worldwide who find it impossible to speak without effort,” Maguire says. “Hopefully, our book — and films like ‘The King’s Speech’ — can shed light on and provide understanding for this struggle.”

Facts about stuttering

  • More than 3 million U.S. children, teens and adults suffer from a chronic stuttering disorder.
  • Stuttering patterns are often unique to each individual, and treatment modalities are also unique to patients. However, most stuttering patterns are marked by repetition of syllables, long silences and struggling behaviors.
  • Stuttering is believed to have a genetic component; it tends to run in families.
  • Stuttering affects four times as many men as women.
  • About 75 percent of children who stutter outgrow the disorder without intervention.
  • Some 20 percent of children go through a development stage when stuttering is severe enough to be a parental concern. Here, the best prevention tool is early intervention.
  • “Person who stutters” is now the correct phrase, replacing “stutterer.”
  • Those afflicted include Marilyn Monroe, James Earl Jones, Lewis Carroll, Carly Simon, Sir Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill, Tiger Woods, Bruce Willis, Vice President Joe Biden Jr., John Stossel, Bill Walton and John Updike.