In all likelihood, you’ve seen it on TV or in the movies. A lead character has what appears to be excessive and uncontrollable outbursts of, well, foul language. While these individuals most likely have a condition known as Tourette syndrome (TS), this somewhat stereotyped portrayal is accurate for only 1 in 10 people with the disorder. Among those who do exhibit these behaviors, do so involuntarily; often, they try to mask the offending word with something more socially acceptable. Persons with TS who show these verbal or muscular tics (e.g., eye blinking or throat clearing) have no control over them. In addition, Tourette syndrome is frequently accompanied by ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, or learning disabilities – or a combination of several of these. Most important, these conditions are not a sign that people with TS any less intelligent than others. As late as 1985, underlying psychological issues were thought to be behind TS. Although that theory has since been discredited, stress and anxiety can bring on these tics.
Back in the Day
During the Middle Ages, many people believed motor and vocal tics were the result of possession by the devil, witchcraft, or exorcism. It was not until 1885, when a young medical student named Georges Gilles de la Tourette (1857-1904) wrote an article in a medical journal. In it, he described a neurological condition he called la maladie des tics, which would lead to the later recognition of the condition that today bears his name. However, there was little interest TS until much later, in the 1960s; recent brain research has contributed much to our understanding of the condition. Yet, as many as 1 in 100 children in the US show signs of Tourette syndrome; most of them are undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or misunderstood. However, the true cause of Tourette remains a mystery.
Knowing about Tourette syndrome is critical to helping people with the condition and advocating for them. That’s why the Tourette Association of America has designated the period of May 15 through June 15 Tourette Awareness Month. It’s up to us to understand and advocate for these individuals.