SPEECH therapist Claire McNeil says people still come up and thank her for the help she gave them as children to manage a stammer.

Recently, a man told Claire he would not have been able to propose to his wife if it hadn't been for their work together. Now she is about to retire, but after one more push for the Fluency Trust, a charity she helped to found over 20 years ago.

Claire, 58, from Garsdon, organised a sponsored cycle ride, and last week rode166 miles from the Saltway Centre in Middleaze, Swindon – the base for Swindon’s speech and language therapy services - to Skern Lodge Activity Centre in north Devon, where the trust’s ground-breaking, intensive courses are run. Pedalling away on her vintage-style Pashley bike (with a basket on the front) she made her way from Swindon to Bradford on Avon, then on to Glastonbury, Bridgwater, Taunton and then over Exmoor to Barnstable and Appledore, where Skern Lodge is located – supported by husband Stuart, in a campervan.

"On day one, I had reached Bradford on Avon by three, but every day after had a challenge of some kind. The second day was more hilly, and I was rained on a bit and was riding against the wind. I had a puncture the day I arrived in Taunton. The day on Exmoor was very hilly but I did it. My body didn't crack up, but I've never eaten so much in my life!"

Around one in twenty children and one in a hundred adults have a stammer. Many children grow out of stammering as their speech skills develop, but for those who need help overcoming the difficulties stammering can cause, the Fluency Trust organised an intensive residential course, combining intensive speech therapy with lots of exciting outdoor activities.

The Fluency Trust, which has been running the courses since 1995, provide a mix of challenging activities and intensive therapy. The combination has proved effective in building confidence and helping youngsters manage stammering positively. The courses led to the development of the award-winning Swindon Fluency Packs, which have become a popular resource for speech and language therapists.

“It’s a partnership - Swindon Borough Council provides the speech and language therapists, and the charity fundraises for the residential element,” Claire said. “Up to 24 young people go each year, aged between ten and 17.”

The young people so all sorts of outdoor activities, such as abseiling and kayaking.

Claire has lived in the Swindon area since leaving university in 1982. She studied speech and language pathology at Manchester University.

“I always thought how vital speech and communication are,” she explained. “I thought that not being able to communicate must be awful.”

She met her husband as university. They married after graduating, and both got jobs in Swindon. He is now managing partner at Bevirs Law, which has offices in Swindon, Royal Wootton Bassett and Calne. The couple have two grown-up children.

“I have worked for the NHS for 35 years,” Claire said, “or under the umbrella of NHS work. I have worked with adults and children, but mainly on voice disorders and stammering.”

She was a specialist therapist for stammering for 30 years, and took on the role of lead therapist.

“We realised that children who stammer can feel very isolated,” she said. “They may not know anyone else in their class or even in their school who stammers, and they can end up feeling they are the only one. Evidence shows they get bullied and teased often, and can feel alone. Group work helps them realise it’s not just them. That’s the vital thing about the residential courses.”

She said children from in and around Swindon attended, to get together for intensive work.

“Every year they say it was so great to meet someone like them. They say, I feel normal here – that’s a huge change. It makes a difference to how people feel about themselves.”

The course was the first of its kind. The outdoor challenges help young people find their strengths, as well as encouraging team-building, which boosts their confidence and self-esteem.

“People still think they can make a joke about stammering – there’s still a perception you can have a laugh about it,” she said.

Claire said they helped youngsters change their attitude towards stammering, so they could manage it in a positive way, and realise it was not such a bad thing.

“We think stammering is caused by a neurological glitch,” Claire explained. “It seems to be the result of differences in certain centres of the brain. It’s nothing to do with your personality. Though stress and being nervous and anxious can make it worse, it’s not the cause of it.”

“Stammering is never the same every day or at every moment. People always have times they can speak smoothly – like if you were talking to the dog in a relaxed state, you may be fluent. You may be fluent for a day.”

Methods for helping to manage a stammer include physical techniques such as slowing down and breathing, but Claire said the most important thing was mindset, and positive thinking skills.

“Children who stutter can get a negative reaction from others so they start developing a negative attitude to speaking. They will try to fix the stammer, but in ways that are not helpful. Or they avoid speaking, and become quiet and go into themselves. Or they try to fight the stammer and force it to try and make it work.

“We encourage them to become less bothered about it – to know it doesn’t have to hold you back.

"We help them to understand you do not have to cure the stammer – you can stammer in an easy way, and it doesn’t have to influence your life.”

She said: “I have former clients who come up and say how the course changed their lives, who say, I would not be where I am now without the help the course gave me.”

The NHS says that boys are more often affected by stammering than girls, and describes how speech development is a complex process involving communication between different parts of the brain, and the muscles responsible for breathing and speaking. When all is working well in the system, the right words are spoken in the right order, with the right rhythm, pauses and emphasis. But problems can occur if some parts of this developing system are not coordinated, which can cause repetitions and stoppages. As the child grows and the brain continues to develop, some of the problems might resolve, which is why many children stop stammering as they get older.

There is believed to be a genetic link as two thirds of people who stammer have a family history of stammering. Men are four times as likely to stammer as women.

The Fluency Trust, which also provides training for professionals and parents, works together with Swindon Borough Council, which is responsible for providing children’s community health services, including speech and language therapy, while the trust raises funds to pay for the residential and activity side of the courses. The charity’s committee is made up of adults who stammer, along with speech and language therapists. For more information, visit thefluencytrust.org.uk.

To support Claire’s fund-raising, visit mydonate.bt.com/events/clairescycle/471927.