While Tourette syndrome is not common, it does affect a small number of boys and girls. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly one out of every 360 children ages 6 to 17 have been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, based on parent report. The CDC estimates that about half of children with Tourette syndrome go undiagnosed.
Tourette syndrome causes uncontrolled, sudden or repetitive muscle movements and sounds, also known as tics. The symptoms of Tourette syndrome typically appear in childhood, likely between the ages of 5 to 9 years old. Boys are more likely than girls to be affected by Tourette syndrome. Tics might get milder as children age, or go away entirely as kids grow into adulthood.
Understanding tics in children with Tourette syndrome
There are two types of tics associated with Tourette syndrome: motor tics and vocal tics. Motor tics refer to sudden and uncontrollable movements like exaggerated eye blinking, grimacing, head jerks or shoulder shrugging. Vocal tics include repeated throat clearing, sniffing, or humming. Tics are classified as simple or complex, in that they either involve just one muscle group or multiple muscle groups.
In some cases, a person with Tourette syndrome might have a tic that makes them harm themselves, or have a complex vocal tic that involves calling out, repeating someone’s words or involuntary swearing.
If a person is under stress, their tics can become more severe or last longer. Some kids with Tourette syndrome can hold back their tics for a long time, but eventually they have to release this tension as a tic. Having Tourette syndrome can make it difficult for children to have a conversation or pay attention in class.
The cause of Tourette syndrome in children
Tourette syndrome is a genetic disorder and the exact cause is unknown. Some research suggests that Tourette syndrome is related to changes in the brain and problems with how nerve cells communicate.
Many children and adolescents with Tourette syndrome have other behavioral conditions, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a learning disability, or generalized anxiety disorder.
Diagnosing and treating Tourette syndrome
Generally, a child is diagnosed with Tourette syndrome if they have several different types of tics — multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic — for a least one year.
A child or teen diagnosed with Tourette syndrome might need to see a neurologist, a physician who specializes in health conditions related to the nervous system. There isn’t a specific test for diagnosing Tourette syndrome. Typically, a doctor looks at a child’s family history, medical history, symptoms and administers a physical exam and other tests to determine a possible diagnosis of Tourette syndrome.
While there isn’t a cure for Tourette syndrome, there are treatment methods to help children and adolescents manage their tics and better control their symptoms. Tics are usually most severe before the mid-teen years and many with Tourette syndrome see a significant improvement in their late teens and early adulthood.
Tourette syndrome is not a psychological condition, but a doctor may refer children and teens with this disorder to a psychologist or psychiatrist. A therapist can help someone with Tourette syndrome deal with the stress of their condition and manage their behavioral problems, like ADHD, OCD or anxiety.
Raising awareness about Tourette syndrome
Many people don’t understand what Tourette syndrome is or what causes it. Because of this, someone might not know how to act around a person who is experiencing motor or verbal tics. Kids and teens might make fun of someone with Tourette syndrome or gawk at a kid who has tics. For parents who have a child with Tourette syndrome, here are some strategies to help your kid cope with this condition:
- Get involved — When a child with Tourette syndrome is engrossed in an activity, their tics might become milder or less frequent. Sports, exercise and hobbies are a few ways to help these kids improve their focus.
- Encourage creativity — Artistic and creative activities help focus the mind and allow children to discover new interests, like painting, writing or making music.
- Find support — As a parent who has a child with Tourette syndrome, know that you’re not alone in dealing with this condition. The Tourette Syndrome Association sponsors support groups for those who are trying to better understand and manage this disorder.
- Be proactive — Someone with Tourette syndrome often feels more in control of their lives by researching the condition, asking questions during doctor visits and taking an active role in their treatment.
Tourette syndrome doesn’t have to disrupt a child’s everyday life. It’s important to remember that each person with Tourette syndrome has different ways of coping with the condition. Despite their challenges, children and teens with Tourette syndrome can lead full, happy lives.