Baylor junior shares battle with speech disorder

Hayden Downs is a communication sciences & disorders major who is balancing his daily life with a stutter. Katy Mae Turner | Photographer

By Rachel Royster | Editor-in-Chief

At 20 years old, Hendersonville, Tenn., junior Hayden Downs describes his relationtionahip with his stutter as “a bad marriage [which he stays] in just for the kids.”

“I would definitely not choose to have [my stutter] again, but there have been aspects of it that I’m very thankful for,” Downs said. “It has made me an exceptional listener, and I can really relate to other people who have had their own challenges in life and lots of other groups who face discrimination too.”

Born to two parents who work in health care, Downs said he was put into speech therapy soon after he first started talking. Additionally, he attended a summer camp in North Carolina geared toward young people with stutters.

“It was the first place where I could meet other people who actually stutter and also adults who stutter,” Downs said. “It’s not the largest community, and it’s hard to meet other people. But it’s really nice to have that exposure.”

From a young age, he endured the effects of a prominent stutter and the social side effects that accompanied it.

“Back then, I was waking up most mornings just knowing that each day would be hell,” Downs said. “Going to school, I would pretty much not be spoken to at all, and I wouldn’t speak much myself.”

Years later, he figured the people around him were trying to protect him in a way by keeping him from the presumed discomfort of speaking. Instead, it did him a disservice and pushed him further into the escape he found in reading young adult novels like “Percy Jackson,” “The Hunger Games” and “Harry Potter” cover-to-cover.

“Things had gotten pretty bad, and I was on a really steep decline,” Downs said. “Going weeks and weeks and months and years on end with very little social interaction when that’s core for us as human beings — especially as we are developing — can be quite harmful.”

Dr. Paul Blanchet, Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech Language Pathology associate professor, said it’s not uncommon for people who stutter to feel isolated from their peers, even if there are others around who have similar experiences.

“If I went to a medium-sized high school with say, 450 students — and I didn’t know anybody who stuttered there when there very well could have been — naturally, I’d think I’m the only one,” Blanchet said. “A lot of people I talk to, they don’t know anybody who stutters, and they’re all speech path grad students.”

Although there are more than 80 million people in the world who stutter — about 1% of the population — Blanchet said the isolation is due to a lack of exposure and public awareness.

When he was young, Downs said being ostracized from classmates due to his disfluency was extremely damaging to his mental health. As a stutterer, he said trying to meet new people and not being able to communicate what he wants to is “dehumanizing,” especially once the other person realizes Downs has a stutter.

“Upon trying to meet a new person, you have the first moment of disfluency, and the person gets a little bit confused, and then as you keep on speaking, it kind of dawns on them,” Downs said. “That’s always the not quite fun part about it. Communication is the bedrock upon which we make friendships and how we share and express our thoughts and feelings and are vulnerable. I think that’s an aspect that’s not really discussed as much as it should be.”

Downs said he thinks males in the stuttering community endure “a perfect storm” specialized to damage mental health.

“It’s very damaging to mental health because, of course, the isolation is always bad and the overall stuttering community is largely male too,” Downs said. “As we all know, men have a much higher rate of suicide and depression, and it’s kind of a taboo for men to talk about those things — even more so among men as vulnerability is not encouraged.”

Due to his speech disorder, Downs said he is often limited in how he can express himself to others. He said anybody who has a stutter has a deep understanding of the words that are especially challenging for them to say. To combat it, many plan out what they want to say and may decide to fill in new words to make what they want to communicate easier to verbalize.

The most anxiety-inducing time tends to land on the introduction day in classes.

“Every class period on the first day of school, we go over the syllabus, and one of the big things we always do is have everyone say their name, major, year and where they’re from,” Downs said. “As that turn gets closer and closer to me, things start to get a little bit panicked. My heart races, I get nervous and I almost kind of plan out what I want to say, because I don’t want to be seen as less competent than I really am.”

Downs said at 14, he started to get tired of the exhaustive speech therapy sessions that made limited progress. After just over a decade spent in different speech pathologists offices, his parents approached him with a new idea.

The two-week program in Norfolk, Va., called the Precision Fluency Shaping Program was led by a male speech pathologist named Ross Barrett, a fellow stutterer.

“His program was the thing that really turned me around in my own speech,” Downs said. “Seeing what he was able to do for others, making use of his own stutter to do good, really was what inspired me. So it was thanks to him that I actually chose to go into speech path.”

Before the program, Downs’ only plan was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a surgeon. Instead, he decided to use his unique experience to give back to his niche community and “live a meaningful life.”

“Prior to the Ross Barrett program, I had no clue that I could be a happy adult who was also successful and had a solid career and a loving spouse,” Downs said. “That showed me how good life could be, so coming out of that program, I wanted to live that out for myself.”

Downs said if the prior trend of isolation had kept going, he’s not sure he’d be here today.

“I don’t think I could quite see it for what it was in the moment, but in hindsight, I can really see how bad things got,” Downs said. “I’m really happy I was provided with a great resource to change things around.”

Since then, he has a newfound mindset surrounding the “bad marriage” he continues to live with today.

“For years and years, I always really struggled with trying to use the speech therapy methods I’d been taught,” Downs said. “Disfluency discouraged me from trying to practice those to get better, but over time, I’ve gradually come to the realization that those times of disfluency just show me where I need to put in more work. The moments that I am fluent are small wins that encourage me to keep working. So instead of taking that negative look on things, it has become much more positive.”

Now on Baylor’s campus, Downs said he starts his day with short stints of self-administered speech therapy. He attends classes toward his communication sciences and disorders major and ends the day relaxing at home after the stress and expenditure of talking all day.

“Most people can just kind of rattle off whatever they want to say without any thought whatsoever,” Downs said. “But for me, it is all very effortful and done with purpose and thought. That’s another pro of the stutter — I put a lot of thought into what I want to say.”

Blanchet, who Downs has assisted in researching the overlap between stuttering and suicide, said he is confident Downs will be an immense help to future speech pathology clients.

“When Hayden came in to talk to me, it was quite clear that he wanted to do [speech path],” Blanchet said. “It was obvious. If you’ve ever met him, you know immediately that he’s the real thing. I don’t know how to explain it, but his own experiences, his enthusiasm. He asked a lot of questions, was very motivated. I think he’ll be great. He knows what he’s getting into. That’s the good thing about having a speech problem in this field: You know what you’re signing up for because you were a client yourself for many years.”

Blanchet said to be a good speech pathologist, one must know how stuttering affects everything about a person’s life.

Growing up, Downs said he often had speech therapists who voiced his symptoms but never truly understood what it was like to live with them. It’s something he hopes to bring to his professional career and, one day, into his own private practice.

He’s already begun his journey to helping others in the stuttering community, as he has returned to his old summer camp, Camp SAY, with a counselor’s badge replacing the camper one.

“People who stutter aren’t truly used to being listened to because we often have so many things said to us like advice that we don’t want or having our words filled in, like saying our names for us and all kinds of things,” Downs said. “It is really, really rewarding when there’s a camper who is completely new to it. They have their first moment where they are stuttering, and they are scared because they’ve been made to be scared of it by others. But in this moment, they have a look around and see that they’re not being judged, but that they’re being loved and being listened to.”

More personally, Downs said he hopes to continue to grow into a healthier relationship with his stutter.

“As it is a lifelong part of myself, it’s very hard to love something that doesn’t treat you well and makes your life so hard,” Downs said. “I would prefer to be walking along with it beside me rather than having to drag it along.”