Less Common Mental Disorders: Tourette’s Syndrome

May 9, 2023

Tourette or Tourette’s Syndrome is a chronic mental health disorder that’s considered a disorder of the nervous system as well as a neurological condition. Tourette’s is a disorder where a person experiences what’s called tics, involuntary movements (motor) or utterances (vocal), for a year or longer, and the person has to have at least two vocal tics and at least one motor tic to be diagnosed. If someone experiences one or the other (but not both) for a period of more than a year, that’s called persistent tic disorder, and if the tics go away after a year, that’s called provisional, or transient, tic disorder. Both of those, however, are different than Tourette’s.

The disorder ranges from mild and mostly unnoticeable to completely debilitating depending on the type and frequency of someone’s tics. Both motor and vocal tics can pretty much be anything, but they usually last for a second or less. Common motor tics include neck jerks, blinking, snapping, slapping, shrugging, and biting; common vocal tics are typically brief sounds or exclamations, but they can elongate into full sentences, too. Vocal tics are often accompanied by motor tics, and they’re often said in ways that make them distinguishable from regular sentences, so if the tic interrupts a person’s speech, you can often tell it’s a tic. 

Because the brain of someone with Tourette’s Syndrome is “sticky,” they’re likely to pick up particular movements, statements, or sounds that stand out to them, or that they see or hear often, and eventually develop those as tics. For example, if you have a friend with Tourette’s and you make the metal symbol often, even if it’s not directed at them, this can be involuntarily stored as a new tic. The same is true for vocal tics, which is why you’ll hear people with Tourette’s say things you’ve heard before, like popular idioms, common colloquialisms, or even movie catchphrases.

Tourette’s is uncommon, but tic disorders are thought to be found in as many as one in five school-aged children (tics are most common in kids and teens). This is why it’s important to be knowledgeable about what tics are and to know how to react (and not react) to them, which I’ll give some examples of below. 

What to do when you see or hear someone tic:

Nothing. Not reacting to a tic, even if it surprises you, is generally the correct response, especially if the tic is expressed by someone you don’t know. If you’re close with the person and they laugh at their own tic, it’s okay to laugh too—vocal tics can often be random and amusing. However, under most circumstances, the person isn’t going to want to engage your questions or comments about a constant thing they can’t help doing. If there are things you want to know, look them up.

What not to do:

This should go without saying, but don’t give the person weird looks or ask “Why did you do/say that?” if you can tell it was a tic. Remember, tics are completely involuntary, caused by complex issues in the brain and nervous system, so even if it’s hard to fathom that someone would say something like “G’day, mate” by accident, it happens. They quite literally can’t control their actions or utterances—most of the time, they don’t know what they’re going to do or say until it happens. Additionally, do not tell the person that their tic is annoying, no matter how many times you hear or see it. Ninety-nine percent of the time they know that already and probably agree with you. Remember: they can’t help it.

A few more don’ts:

  • Don’t repeat the tic. That enforces it in the person’s brain and can easily become problematic. This also counts as making fun of the person; it doesn’t matter if it’s “cute” or “fun to say.”
  • Don’t say things like “I wish I had Tourette’s” or “You’re lucky, you can say/do whatever you want and get away with it.” Having tics is alienating, embarrassing, and often feels shameful; it’s not fun. 
  • Don’t get offended. A person with tics might accidentally hit you or say something rude to you; they might flip you off or curse at you involuntarily. Don’t take this personally. It’s a tic and it has nothing to do with how they feel about you. 
  • Don’t ask “Was that a tic?” Instead, use your judgement to determine that yourself (if you must). For the vast majority of cases, it probably was, so just stop asking.
  • Don’t EVER try to make the person tic. Yes, it’s easy to do, especially if you’re familiar with their tic patterns; it often takes only your saying a tic or doing a movement for someone with Tourette’s to do it too. But that’s also, for lack of a better term, a bitch move. If you want to stay on that person’s good side, never try to make them tic on purpose.

Tourette’s and its associated tic disorders can be extremely difficult to manage, so always be kind to people with tics. Don’t treat them differently, laugh at them, or make fun of them; they’re average people with a minor quirk, and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing—remember, it’s up to you to make sure it isn’t. Like all other mental disorders, people with Tourette’s and tics are no different than anyone else. Why treat them like they are? 

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