BeneTalk is seeking to address the silent impact of stuttering on people’s lives through a digital tool for children and their parents and adults living with the speech impediment.
Stuttering is more prevalent than you might think.
The neurodevelopmental disorder, which begins in childhood, affects 8 per cent of children and 2 per cent of adults.
Joe Biden, Samuel L Jackson and Julia Roberts are among the long list of high-profile public figures that have opened up about their struggles to overcome a stutter.
These celebrities have learned to manage their speech impediment and achieve huge success in careers that many children who stutter would not dream possible.
However, many people – especially those whose impediment continues into adulthood – are at a heightened risk of mental health conditions due to the emotional stress that comes with the condition.
One study from 2020 found that stutterers showed higher depression symptoms compared to fluent individuals.
Using data from a 14-year survey involving over 13,000 participants, the research also found that suicidal thoughts were prevalent, especially among male stutterers.
Jordi Fernandez, CEO of BeneTalk – a habit-building app for adults who stutter – developed a stutter at the age of five.
He saw numerous speech therapists but none of them were able to help him overcome the impediment.
He is among the 2 per cent of people whose stutter continued into their adulthood.
Speaking over Zoom, Fernandez’s stutter is barely noticeable.
He, like many others who grew up with a stutter, has learned to manage the condition. But this does not mean his stammer has disappeared.
“We always think that a stutter is something obvious […] but it’s a hidden problem,” Fernandez said.
“There might be a word and you know you can’t say it so you have to change it all the time.
“Since you wake up in the morning until you go to bed at night, you’re thinking about how you are going to say this word and what situation might [trigger your stutter].
“That is something that I think people don’t understand.”
At university, Fernandez’s speech impediment led to him failing a module that involved a verbal presentation.
At that time, there was very little awareness of stuttering and support was lacking.
On leaving university, he followed a career path that allowed him to avoid speaking, until at the age of 30, he attended a speech therapy programme that changed his life.
It gave him the tools to take control of his speech and allowed him to conquer his fear of public speaking.
“I found the techniques were very simple,” he said. “I thought, this is not rocket science but there is a lack of knowledge here.
“So, why are we not building a solution to help people who stutter with this knowledge – that you have to practice, you have to be more open about your stuttering.
“Interestingly, the more that you push it out, the more that you stutter. This is the loop.
“The more you stutter, the more anxious you get, the more you stutter. The moment you don’t have fear is the moment you become more fluent.”
Recalling his time at school, Fernandez described speaking in front of his class as like navigating a minefield. He didn’t know at which moment a word would become stuck.
This fear inevitably led to a heightened anxiety that only perpetuated his speech impediment.
Enter BeneTalk: ‘Like a fitness tracker for speech’
BeneTalk is on a mission to not only improve people’s speaking ability but also address the emotional impact of stuttering through a digital approach.
“It should be noted, that stuttering is a highly complex condition,” Fernandez said. “The emotional aspects differ from individual to individual.
“We promote acceptance of stuttering whilst also understanding that people seek help for a variety of reasons.
“Our ethos is to remind users that stuttering is nothing to be ashamed of and needn’t be a barrier to joyful communication.”
To date, the company has developed two distinct products. BeneTalk launched in 2022 and Penguin launched in 2023.
The two apps are designed to empower people who stutter to lead more confident lives by supporting both them and their families.
BeneTalk is a mobile app that supports users in adopting helpful communication habits with interactive exercises and real-time feedback.
Just like a fitness tracker helps users stay fit, BeneTalk includes a user-centric speech tracker to encourage regular practice and provide progress updates.
It has already been downloaded by 15,000 users across 193 countries.
The solution will develop into a goal-based programme that works in tandem with speech and language therapists.
“[The app] is helping people who stutter learn ways to reduce tension whilst speaking, but also helping them feel less anxious about speaking situations too,” Fernandez said.
A feasibility study conducted by BeneTalk suggested that 10 hours using the intervention can be equivalent to 10 hours of standard speech therapy.
This was measured in terms of quality of life (QoL) improvement using the Wright & Ayre Stuttering Self-Rating Profile (WASSP) assessment.
Penguin, meanwhile, is an app for parents and carers of children who stutter.
Recent research has shown that parents and carers of children who stutter can also face serious mental health challenges.
The paper concluded by suggesting that speech-language pathologists (SLPs) should broaden the scope of their services to include parents in the care journey.
This might include informational counselling to help address worry or anxiety.
Penguin seeks to do this by giving parents the tools to support their child in communicating confidently through a 10-day in-app course that parents can work through in their own time.
The app was developed with the input of Action for Stammering Children, NHS speech therapists, people who stutter and a collection of parents and caregivers.
It is currently being used in five NHS trusts.
“With Penguin, we provide parents and carers with key information that reduces anxiety and stigma around stuttering,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez recalls experiencing this stigma when he was growing up with a stammer.
While he does not blame his family for their lack of understanding of the condition, he believes their sometimes hardened approach “did more harm than help”.
“I had an aunt who after every time I saw her I got nightmares about how she spoke to me,” he said.
“She would say ‘Come on, speak fast, quickly’. It was not her fault, but it [gave] me a lot of trauma.”
He added: “In this sense, our mission is to ensure the next generation of people who stutter can grow up in homes where stuttering is accepted and with families that know how to support them.
“We believe that these children will grow up without the mental health challenges related to stuttering that previous generations have had to face.”
As part of BeneTalk’s future roadmap, the company will be launching a third app called SuperPenguin – a personalised, goal-based therapy plan for parents of children who stutter.
The app will provide practical advice on how to manage different scenarios, with behavioural guidance around how to nurture their child’s confidence and create an open, transparent dialogue around stuttering.
BeneTalk has raised £2m to date, including £640,000 in non-dilutive grants from Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency.
Now, the company is aiming to raise a further £160,000 through a public crowdfunding campaign via Seedrs.
Funding will be used to accelerate the development and extend the availability of its proprietary digital therapy.
It will also allocate funds towards research and clinical trials.
This month, the company has also progressed onto the next application process for the NIHR grant of £1.4m to run economic assessments in SuperPenguin for NHS.
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