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Bwi ba ba ba ba do: or why children are not ‘so cruel’. Supporting children who stammer, with help from Musharaf Asghar, Gareth Gates and John ‘Scatman’ Larkin

Date posted: Wednesday 27th November 2013

Ski bi di bi di do bap do
Do bam do
Bada bwi ba ba bada bo
Baba ba da bo
Bwi ba ba ba ba do [x2]

Everybody stutters one way or the other,
So check out my message to you.
As a matter of fact, don’t let nothin’ hold you back.
If the Scatman can do it, brother, so can you

Scatman John The Scatman (1995)

When we hear about children teasing or being unkind to each other, we are often told, ‘Children can be so cruel.’ I don’t actually believe that. I think that when children tease each other they are either making a mistake that they can learn from, or copying adults around them. Take the example of stammering/stuttering (they mean the same thing, which is accurately termed as dysfluency.) Everyone is dysfluent at some time or other in our lives: often when we are tired, highly nervous, or have had too much alcohol! Many children between ages two and four go through a period of normal non-fluency, where they seem to have so many ideas and not enough words to express them all. This can be a natural part of our lives as communicators, or become a serious problem. Which way it goes will depend on how other people react to the way we speak.

One of the most successful comedy films of the 1990s was John Cleese’s A Fish Called Wanda. It has some very very funny scenes. But it also makes me furious. Michael Palin plays the part of Ken, the hapless petty crook who has a crippling stammer, complete with facial tics and extreme head movements that he uses to try and force his words out. It’s supposed to be funny. I’m surprised that Michael Palin agreed to take the part: particularly because he based his whole stammering behaviour on his father, who all his life had a severe stammer. I guess it had a good result in the end because Palin agreed to give his name and endorsement to the centre for excellence in stammering in Islington that is known as The Michael Palin Centre.

I’m not going to rant about how some of us laugh about, and inadvertently belittle, people who have speech impediments. After all, a large element of comedy is about laughing at other people’s misfortunes. However we can’t really blame children and teenagers for teasing their peers who stammer, when the BBC commissions programmes that centre around characters who stammer and make them look totally ridiculous, viz Ronnie Barker’s character in Open All Hours and Jim Trott in The Vicar of Dibley (“Yes, yes, yes, yes… no.”).

The one thing that we can all do to help children who stammer is to be sympathetic listeners and to find out what is the most helpful way to respond when talking with them. Unfortunately children who stammer can be subject to the most crippling teasing at school and in some cases at home, by older siblings and relatives. This not only stops them from making progress, but can destroy their self-esteem. We know of celebrities that have worked hard to become entertainers as a way of coping with the experience of being bullied at school. John ‘Scatman’ Larkin found fame as a musician late in life and as we see from this short documentary clip, the teasing he received was crippling. Luckily he had music to help him express himself and ‘get his own back’ on people who had inadvertently helped to destroy his self-esteem just because he wasn’t as fluent as his peers. He found fame in his early 50s, but sadly died of lung cancer four years after he first became an international hit.

Short documentary about John ‘Scatman’ Larkin RIP 1999

Ski bi di bi di do bap do/Do bam do!! Scatman John in all his groovy jazzy glory

Gareth Gates, like many people who stammer, is much more fluent when singing. There’s no question that Gareth Gates is hugely talented, but when he first won Pop Idol everyone was talking as much about his stammer as they were about his stage presence. Ten years on, people like Loose Women in this clip are treating him as a ‘celebrity stammerer’. The way they keep putting him under pressure by interrupting him all the time is probably the best example of how not to help someone become fluent. (But then it wouldn’t have been a good interview for them unless they had made their guest stammer.)

Gareth Gates on Loose Women

The feature film The King’s Speech, with Colin Firth giving a brilliant performance as George VI, is, by all accounts, a near- perfect portrayal of what it can be like for someone who has even a very mild stammer. It also shows how other people’s negative attitudes and pressure to ‘speak properly’ can make the problem so much worse. David Mitchell, in his brilliant semi-autobiographical novel Black Swan Green, whose main character is a 13-year-old boy with a stammer he calls The Hangman, describes how his teachers lead and encourage the teasing that ruins his school life.

However teachers must meet this bullying head on, and help children realise that their teasing is a mistake. If everyone in the school can try to be sympathetic, then remarkable things can happen. Musharaf Asghar, who has become a bit of a YouTube sensation, was teased so much about his stammer (which has got to be one of the worst I have ever come across) that his school attendance fell to around 30% in year 7 and he was on the verge of changing schools. But as we see, his teachers took positive action. What I can’t understand is why someone like Musharaf, with a massive speech impairment, is forced to take the oral part of his English exam, which amounts to 20% of his marks.

Before you watch this clip of Musharaf on Educating Yorkshire I seriously advise you to go and get a box of tissues ready.

This is pretty emotional stuff, but we need to bear in mind that working to improve your speech impairment is a long hard slog, and not usually as dramatic as we see in films or on TV. However we all have a small part to play in helping children who stammer- just by improving the way we react. Saying to a child, “I’m listening” (and then actually taking the time to do so) is probably the most powerful thing we can do. That child will remember you as someone who is a ‘good listener’ and be more confident when taking with you.

And finally… Just when you thought it was safe to be a Scatman…

For more information about organisations in the UK that support people who stammer visit and

Take care out there.


To read more about children in early years with dysfluency click here.

For an in-depth article about the causes and current approaches to stammering click here.

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4 responses to “Bwi ba ba ba ba do: or why children are not ‘so cruel’. Supporting children who stammer, with help from Musharaf Asghar, Gareth Gates and John ‘Scatman’ Larkin”

  1. Michael
    Great stuff as usual. “My Generation” by the Who is a beautiful 2 and 1/2 minute treatise on assertiveness self esteem and yes, stuttering.

    “People try to put us down……..
    Just because we g g g et around”

    The “FFFFF fade away” was originally/apochyphically(?) put in to imply F*** off when you couldn’t say F*** off in a song. It still sounds great but isn’t it weird to the think that the boys who “hoped they’d die before they got old” are fast approaching 70 even though two of them have dropped off the twig. Is pop music supposed to last?

    Here’s another thing; I watched the lad from Yorkshire’s end of year speech through the medium of Gogglebox( the programme that shows a selection of people watching the last week’s TV). Basically a TV programme about people watching TV programmes. The day they show people watching themselves watching a programme about them watching a programme is when I think we will have all gone collectively culturally bonkers.

    Anyway even watching it once removed, I blubbed along with everyone else. It is genuinely moving.

    Ever heard of a PDM? Poignant Documentary Moment. It’s usually a slow motion montage of someone getting through to the next round of the X factor, cut with reactions from family members etc etc and clips relating to their “journey” There is a little library of sound clips that accompany these montages on whatever TV programme they appear. Usually Snow Patrol, Elbow or Sigur Ros. If I was a proper musician I would tell you musically exactly why these particular pieces of music PLUS slo mo images help to engender strong emotional responses:What the formula is. They usually involve a thumping rhythm, a wash of strings and the insertion of themes in a minor key (I think).
    But it is interesting that even the most cynical amongst us can quite often be manipulated by a combination of sound and image into a slightly uncontrolled emotional response. It is a strong and heady sensory cocktail. Which leads you on to wondering about how context can be manipulated and what that manipulation can engender in people.Music is usually the moment at a funeral where even those who have “held it together” the longest, break down. It’s a powerful tool.

    What is it they play to people in siege standoff situations? Metallica? Britney Spears? If I were holed up with some hostages I’d be out quick sharp once they started in on Mumford and Sons…Hands in the air in the back of the van double quick.

    So when we use music in schools, especially with groups of children who may include those with hyper sensitive hearing, we should try to be careful not just about volume but about content too.
    Sorry I went right off stuttering completely.

    • Michael Jones says:

      That’s very funny! Yes, it’s the music that really gets people going emotionally. Mumford and Sons and a hostage situation… that’s a really funny image. For me it would be either ‘Young Girl’ by Gary Puckett or ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’ by The Righteous Brothers (Even their name makes me cringe!).
      I worked with a girl with profound learning difficulties who really responded to a recording of a soprano singing Bach’s ‘Sheep may safely graze.’ We discovered that she liked falsetto too, so we had to bite the bullet and play The Bee Gees regularly!

  2. Julie Barton says:

    I once was told that it is easier for stuttering children to sing than to speak. Is this true? Was this the underlying message in your blog?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Julie
      Some children who stutter certainly find it easier to sing, and even read aloud, as long as it is not their own words they are reading or singing. This seems to be because they can rehearse and singing has a definite structure to it; e.g. Rhythm .
      What is problematic is talking spontaneously, because they get caught out by all the sounds that they habitually get stuck on.
      The film ‘The King’s Speech’is quite remarkable, because many of the techniques used by the therapist in the film are still used today.
      The message of my post was about the things that we can do for children that don’t require a therapist; e.g stopping teasing, becoming a better listener and finding our from the child what they find useful when having a conversation; e.g waiting, or saying the word that the child has got stuck on. These things vary for each child.
      Thank you for responding to my post!
      Best wishes from Michael

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