A boy called Arsenal's stammer

The back of a man's head with an inset of a book cover
Image posed by a model (courtesy of 123ducu from Getty Images)

Alan J. Hill's biograpy 'A Boy Called Arsenal' is all about Arsenal Whittick, a man diagnosed with autism later in life. Having also stammered since he was a child, Arsenal has grown in confidence to become a public speaker. For this exclusive article, Alan tells us Arsenal's story of growing up with a stammer.

The classroom was dusty, so much so that the sunlight streaming in through the grimy windows caught the motes swirling in the air as though the childrens' thoughts had materialised and taken to the sky. Thirty-three pupils, boys and girls all aged eleven or twelve, waited nervously for their turn to read aloud from the books in front of them. Books they had to share, one per pair. Each couple sat in various stages of disinterest behind bare wooden desks bought sometime in the preceding decade and looking older still. 

The book was 'The Starlight Barking' by Dodie Smith, the sequel to 'A Hundred and One Dalmatians', of which the children had never set eyes upon but, as the school only had the sequel that would have to suffice. The books were dog-eared and battered and made the desks look 'shop new'. 

One pupil sat on  his own, Arsenal Whittick, a self-named boy living on the 'spectrum'; something that working class parents and children in Liverpool in September 1973 hadn't heard about.

Arsenal sat trembling, his undiagnosed autism, a reality some thirty-eight years into his future, was waiting for him like an impatient stranger. At the age of eleven, Arsenal's autistic tendencies manifested themselves in many ways, one being an acute stammer that at its most severe could make him hiss as he desperately tried to get his words out and make himself understood. No one at Arsenal's new school had been informed that he stammered. His parents, for whatever reason, hadn't told his new teachers and his primary school had not thought to pass on any information. Arsenal was on his own.

There was little if no allowance made for Arsenal's journey through the education system and, more concerningly, no help for him either.

It was his turn to read. The other children had quickly worked out that Arsenal had difficulty speaking and was socially difficult due to his autism, hence him being the only child sat alone. He tried. He formed the words in his head, but they wouldn't come out. At first his new teacher thought he couldn't read and rapidly stopped issuing words of encouragement before becoming angry and threatening. In the 70s, every misdemeanour involved some form of corporal punishment, especially for the boys. 

Arsenal got flustered and stammered more and more, spitting and spraying before his inability to speak turned into what became a low hissing noise, a noise that would follow him around school for the next five years of his adolescence. At long last the teacher pardoned him from reading out loud and moved on to the next child. Nevertheless, the seed had been sown and the only blooms from those seeds were weeds. Arsenal describes the next five years as 'Hell'. He became the butt of the bullies' jokes, although joke is too kind a word for what he had to endure.

Every morning at registration, Arsenal would be building up just to shout out "Yes, miss", in answer to his name to say he was there, all present and correct. Unfortunately, 'The Lads' would start hissing at him like snakes so that by the time it was his turn ('Whittick' being near the end of the register), he was so stressed that he couldn't even reply "Yes" or "Here".

Every school dinner time, Arsenal was bullied to the back of the queue as it used to take him so long to indicate his choice of the two courses on offer. Eventually a kindly dinner lady started to understand Arsenal's plight and pulled him to one side so he could indicate his preference. To quote Arsenal, "She was really good with me".

In P.E., Arsenal was invariably made a captain simply so that when picking sides his friends could laugh at him trying to call out peoples' names.

Chasing him into adult life

There was little if no allowance made for Arsenal's journey through the education system and, more concerningly, no help for him either. His parents enrolled him on speech therapy lessons but he eventually gave up on them, his undiagnosed autism always getting in the way. His problems chased him into adult life like footballers chasing a referee, invariably ending with him getting booked or sent off. There is not much good news when you reach the age of forty and still cannot order a drink at a bar.

Arsenal also now stands up and presents for hours at a time in front of sometimes hundreds of people.

He had the same haircut every time. "Number 1 all over please," a sentence he had mastered. He recently told me, "I've matured to a number 2 and by the time I reach a 100, I might have a haircut I want". Whenever he went shopping for his mother, he had to take lists to hand over to the shopkeeper. He has never had an interview for a job, relying on word of mouth and references from family and friends. As a young man he walked all over Liverpool and never took a bus to save himself the embarrassment of trying to buy a ticket. When he amassed enough courage to order a drink, he was refused many times, the bartender believing he was already drunk.

But this story is not one without hope. At the age of forty, Arsenal, through the generosity of a stranger, was enrolled on a course called The Starfish Project, designed specifically for people with stammers. When he completed it he was employed as a traffic warden, where he had to engage and speak to people. 

Arsenal now trains staff at St. Ann's Hospital in Poole to deal with autism, using his first-hand account of living with it. He has made a speech and language therapy video for the charity Autism Unlimited. 

Arsenal also now stands up and presents for hours at a time in front of sometimes hundreds of people, explaining how he has dealt with his late-life diagnosis of autism and the challenges of holding a conversation before the age of forty. Not bad for a bloke that couldn't speak until the age of seven!

Alan J. Hill is the author of several books including 'A Boy Called Arsenal', where you can read more, and most recently the acclaimed novel 'Under the Stairs'. You can also read a review of 'A Boy Called Arsenal', written by one of our volunteer reviewers, Bill.

The Starfish Project is one of a number of options for adults who stammer. For the full list of options, see Adults Stammering Therapy & Courses.

Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
Tayo & Bhupinder
A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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