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Tourette’s Syndrome: What Is It and What It Means for Kids

I have Tourette's syndrome 

What Is Tourette's Syndrome?

Tourette’s syndrome is a condition that affects the nervous system. This is why the most common and recognizable symptom of Tourette's syndrome is "tics." But, all this means is that Tourette's syndrome is a condition in which the nervous system spasms in a particular way.

You can think of these tics as having hiccups (just indefinitely). While you may not want to hiccup, your body does it involuntarily. The same is true for individuals with Tourette's syndrome. Tics are not caused by anxiety, stress, or behavioral issues. They cannot be stopped willingly, they are involuntary, and while some individuals may be able to delay a tic for an amount of time with a lot of effort, eventually, the tic will happen.

It is important to note that Tourette's syndrome is not the only type of tic disorder, but it is the most severe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1 in 50 children between the ages of 5-14 have some type of persistent tic disorder. 

Symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome

The main symptom of Tourette’s syndrome is tics. A tic is a sudden, brief, and repetitive movement or sound. These tics usually start at a young age, between five and seven, and peak just before the teen years. Tics can also worsen when the individual is stressed or excited and tend to improve when they are calm or focused on an activity. Tics can also evolve, disappear, or reappear over time.

Additionally, there are four different ways to classify tics. First, there are simple and complex tics. Then, those ticks can be motor or verbal tics. We will define simple and complex tics and offer examples of motor and verbal tics below.

Simple Tics

Simple tics involve only one muscle group. For example, the muscles in the shoulder or around the nose, mouth, or eyes.

Complex Tics

Unlike simple tics, complex tics involve several muscle groups. An example of this could be a tic that requires the movement of both your shoulder and a part of your face — such as shoulder shrugging and nose or mouth movements.

Motor Tics

Motor tics can be both simple and complex. In addition, individuals may express more than one tic, varying in severity and frequency.

Some examples of simple motor tics are:

  • Blinking
  • Eye darting
  • Nose twitching
  • Shoulder shrugging
  • Head jerking
  • Mouth movements
  • Arm jerking

Some examples of complex motor tics are:

  • Combined movements — such as mouth movements plus shoulder shrugging
  • Touching or smelling objects
  • Bending or twisting
  • Jumping
  • Stepping in certain patterns
  • Repeating movements

Verbal Tics

Verbal tics may also be referred to as phonic tics. Again, these tics can be either simple or complex and vary in frequency and severity.

Some examples of simple verbal tics are:

  • Throat clearing
  • Clicking
  • Sniffing
  • Grunting
  • Barking

Some examples of complex verbal tics are:

  • Repeating their own words or phrases
  • Echolalia — repeating others' words or phrases
  • Coprolalia — using obscene or swear words

Causes of Tourette’s Syndrome

While the condition does run in families, the exact cause for Tourette’s syndrome is unknown. Many healthcare professionals also believe that neurotransmitter problems may contribute to Tourette's syndrome, but more research is needed to confirm anything.

Risk Factors

Even though there is no known cause for Tourette's syndrome, some risk factors may increase someone's chance of having the disorder.

These are:

  • Family history — as mentioned above, parents may pass down certain genes that can cause Tourette's syndrome.
  • Gender — males are more likely to develop Tourette's syndrome than females. Males are three to four times more likely to exhibit tics than females.
  • Prenatal health — mothers who had health complications or smoked during pregnancy may increase their children's risk of Tourette's syndrome.

As you may notice, none of these risk factors are controllable for the child. In fact, the only one that is controllable in any way is a child's prenatal health. But, even this one is not necessarily controllable as health complications can come up without warning.

What Tourette's Syndrome Looks Like in Kids

Tics are often worst in children as they have either just begun or not yet settled. This means that your child may exhibit a lot of different tics throughout the day or exhibit the same types of tics frequently throughout the day. It is important to note that tics can evolve over time, and some can be harmful.

Remember, tics are not a choice. They are involuntary movements that your child cannot control.

How to Interact with Someone with Tourette's Syndrome

To better interact with and build connections with children who have Tourette's Syndrome, follow these simple guidelines:

  • Do not scold them for having tics. They do not want to tic on purpose, and they cannot stop it voluntarily.
  • Do not ask them to stop having tics. They cannot stop, which will only make them feel more self-conscious or stressed, making them tic more frequently.
  • Ignore the tics and just interact with them like you would other children.
  • Explain to them what Tourette's syndrome is and how it affects them. Help them understand what their body is doing. This can help them to feel less confused and anxious about their tics.
  • Help them avoid feeling ashamed of their tics. You can explain it to them like hiccups; this is something that many children will understand and identify with.
  • Teach them relaxation techniques. When people with Tourette's syndrome are calm or focused, their tics can become less severe or frequent. This can be especially helpful for individuals who may have tics that can be harmful to themselves or others as it can help to lower the frequency or intensity of their tics.

Conclusion

If your child has just begun exhibiting tics or you are a teacher who has children who have tics in your classroom, this information can help you to ensure that you are not adding to the anxiety they may already feel about their tics. This can help them to focus on other areas of their life and, in the long run, help them to gain better control over their tics by allowing them to relax and be calmer.

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