Tourette Syndrome (often called Tourette’s, or TS) is a neurological disorder characterized by tics, uncontrollable sounds and movements that are unwanted by the person experiencing them.
Common motor tics are eye blinking, grimacing, head bobbing, or shoulder shrugging; some common vocal tics might be sniffing, throat clearing, shouting, or grunting. (A common stereotype for TS is a vocal tic in which the person swears, shouts ethnic or racial slurs, or otherwise inappropriate words/phrases, but this only occurs in a minority of cases.)
According to the Tourette Syndrome Association, diagnostic criteria is:
- At least two motor tics and one verbal tic
- Tics persist for more than one year
- Tics began before the age of 18
The frequency, type, and location of the tics can change, and sometimes symptoms can disappear for several months. This can delay diagnosis by misleading observers. Tics tend to get worse during exciting or stress activities (like going on vacation, or taking a test.)
Adults and parents of children with TS often mistake tics as a child acting out or misbehaving. Punishing a child for their tics is unhelpful, as the child is not in control of how and when they happen. (Some children have shared that they can ‘hold back’ their tics for a short time, but doing so creates a growing sense of tension until the tic inevitably happens.)
A child with TS may also struggle in school, as sudden vocal or motor tics may alarm teachers and peers, leading to disciplinary action from above and isolation from social groups. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke reports that many people with TS “experience additional neurobehavioral problems that often cause more impairment than the tics themselves. These include inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity… obsessive-compulsive symptoms… depression or anxiety disorders” (NINDS).
In most cases, the tics decrease in severity and frequency as a child enters adolescence and adulthood, with some people experiencing no tics at all. However, the underlying neurobiological difficulties remain.
For child with TS, school can be a strain as they attempt to cope with their tics and the other neurobiological influences. Negative responses from teachers and peers could result in a general disinterest from school, and the anxiety that accompanies TS can also interfere with a child’s ability to succeed in the classroom. Advocacy from the parents in assisting the teacher to understand how to best work with the child can help alleviate some of these struggles. A firm stance and action against bullying in the school is also useful, as those with TS often find themselves to be the target of bullying.
For the gifted child with TS, the effect on their education can be particularly damaging. Inattentiveness or anxiety resulting in lower academic performance could mask the gifted child’s abilities, preventing educators from getting them the resources they need to thrive. Understanding the child’s rights to education, both as a gifted individual and as an individual with a neurobiological disorder, is a key component to effective advocacy.