Looking down at his lap and rocking slightly in the chair, Barrett Greaves struggles to get his lips and tongue to cooperate with his brain. He pushes hard to get the words out in between silences that can be painful for an observer unaccustomed to the teen's condition.
Barrett, a junior at Mountain View High School, stutters. It is a something he has struggled with for as long as he can remember, and it has posed educational, as well as social, challenges for the curly-haired 16-year-old.
But as much as his stuttering has been frustrating over the years, it is now proving to be a motivating force for action. With the help of his father, Barrett is working to establish the first teen-focused Peninsula chapter of the National Stuttering Association -- a non-profit organization benefitting adults and children who stutter.
They are calling the group Teens Who Stutter -- TWST, or "twist," for short.
Barrett looks a lot like any other 16-year-old, and he acts like one, too. A baggy, hooded sweatshirt and loose blue jeans cover his thin frame, as he slouches down low in a padded armchair in his family's living room -- texting away on his iPhone, while his father explains how the teen can lose himself for hours at a time in video games.
Mikal Greaves says it wasn't clear that his son had a serious issue until he was around 7 or 8. At first, when he was learning to speak, it just seemed that his thoughts were moving too fast for his brain. Once it became clear that Barrett had an issue, he began seeing a speech therapist regularly.
Over the years, Greaves and his family have learned how to better manage Barrett's stuttering. There are tricks the teen knows to ensure he is communicating as effectively as possible, and his mother and father have learned how to interact with their son -- never finishing his sentences for him or pushing him to hurry up.
Barrett's current speech therapist, Kim Henesian, has helped him identify two techniques that help him speak more fluidly. According to Henesian, Barrett does better when he is relaxed and speaking in even, gentle tones. It also helps when he can ease into each sound of a given word, which he accomplishes by stretching out vowels and consonants.
The cause of stuttering is not entirely understood, Henesian says. "Today's research is pointing to a neurological basis with a hereditary component. It has been reported that there is a timing problem in the communication signals from the brain to the speech mechanism, causing a tensing of the muscles of speech production resulting in stuttering," she says.
It is a common misconception that stuttering is the result of a psychological problem, Henesian says. Because of this misconception, people who stutter sometimes feel ashamed and may be mocked -- especially when they are younger. Another common reaction, said Barrett, is that people will attempt to finish his sentences, which is very frustrating for him.
"I think it is wonderful that Barrett is starting a local chapter of the National Stuttering Association," Henesian says. "It takes a lot of courage to put yourself in the public eye when you are challenged by stuttering. I am proud of him and of the proactive role he is taking with regard to his speech disorder."
Henesian says there is a "great need" for a local chapter of the National Stuttering Association, "so that teens can gather together, develop friendships and support each other as they deal with similar speech challenges." There is no known cure for stuttering, Henesian says, but support groups have been shown to help people feel more comfortable with their condition.
Barrett's father agrees. He says that when his son plays video games, and is completely caught up within his virtual world, he sometimes is able to carry on conversations with friends -- remotely over an Internet-connected headset -- that go on for minutes on end, without him stuttering.
Greaves says that his son was at first hesitant to attend a recent meeting of the NSA in Texas with his family. However, his son soon felt right at home, Greaves says.
"By the second day he was really into it," he says. "It was so helpful (for) Barrett to be with other teens who stuttered."
Barrett's visit to the Texas conference inspired the teen's father to suggest that the two of them create a local chapter. "The support part of (the NSA) is so important."
Henesian has pledged to help with the project as well help spread the word by notifying other speech and language pathologists in neighboring school districts.
For his part, Barrett said he hopes that the group will help "teens who stutter to become more confident and less worried about what people might think of them."
The first meeting of TWST is set for Feb. 28, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., at the Palo Alto Elk's Lodge, 4249 El Camino Real. For information call 650-938-6356.