Before he became a speech language pathologist, Jeffrey Glessing dreamed of becoming a golf course superintendent.
Then one day, while he was talking to his boss, Glessing’s plans took a rude knock. He was told by his boss he could never be a superintendent because he stuttered.
For Glessing, the episode became a turning point in his life. For the past 22 years, Glessing, of Mantorville, has devoted his career to debunking common misconceptions that society entertains about stuttering: That a person who stutters is not as intelligent or capable as others. And the view that stuttering is some kind of handicap that should be avoided and kept hidden, an attitude that can be more problematic than the stuttering itself.
Far from seeing it as handicap, Glessing today regards his stutter as a positive. But it wasn’t an attitude that Glessing adopted overnight. It became a journey. And the same is true for the main character in his new book, “The Mystery of the Mistakes in Mulligan’s Mouth.” The adventure story centers on a boy with a stuttering problem and his path toward acceptance with the help of a magic harmonica. The book is illustrated by one of Glessing’s students, Emmy Kidman, a Schaeffer Academy high school graduate who also stutters.
Glessing, who also works for Rochester Public Schools, said one reason for writing the book stemmed from a sense of dissatisfaction about how people who stuttered were portrayed in books and movies.
“If you had talked to me when I was 20, I would have said you were nuts,” Glessing said about his own attitudinal change. “I understand that what you see on the outside isn’t always what’s going on in the inside. Those are valuable lessons in life.”
Only about 1 percent to 2 percent of school-age children have a stutter. Some people who stutter outgrow it. Others don’t. For those who don’t, there may be no such thing as a cure, technically speaking (though the condition can be ameliorated), but one thing that can be overcome and cured are the negative side effects it can create in a person’s life, Glessing said.
Glessing said he once knew a person who viewed his stutter as such a problem that he avoided drive-thru windows and certain social situations. It can also lead to avoidance strategies such as changing words or speech patterns or pushing words out, all of which arises from and aggravates the tension and nervousness about the stutter.
“A lot of stuttering isn’t the stuttering. It’s the trying not to stutter, if that makes sense,” he said. “What the research is showing is that there’s a neurological difference in how your brain processes language and then you try to stop that or you feel socially punished. And then you tense up and that causes all the stuff that we think of as an adult stutterer.”
Glessing said one aspect of therapy is to manage and reduce that tension, and one place he often starts is to remind patients of the purpose of communication: It’s to get what you want, to get your needs fulfilled. If you go to a restaurant to order a cheeseburger but order a sandwich instead to avoid words you stutter over, then you have failed. But if you get the cheeseburger, even though you might have stuttered in asking for it, you have succeeded.
The book’s main character is Harry Mulligan, a boy who regards his stutter as a cross to bear because he has a mother who is unaccepting and frustrated by it. Then Harry finds a mysterious black box and with it an adventure that leads to a different understanding of his stuttering, with the help of an understanding grandfather.
“That’s the thing about stuttering, too,” Glessing said. “Everybody can find their voice in a different way. That’s why I wrote the book. I didn’t want to get too preachy. I didn’t want to steer people towards one kind of therapy, but rather one kind of belief. You communicate to get what you want and fulfill your needs.”