Mind & Body

You Probably Believe These 5 Myths About Tourette Syndrome

For a while, Tourette syndrome was a staple of comedies, both highbrow and low. Who can forget the vulgar tirades from Amy Poehler's character in "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo," or the way Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character sweetly excuses the cursing game he plays with Zooey Deschanel's character in "500 Days of Summer" by telling passersby he has Tourette? Thanks to media representations like these, the majority of us have vast misconceptions about Tourette syndrome. Let's bust these myths wide open.

Myth #1: Everyone With Tourette Syndrome Curses Uncontrollably

If you ask 10 people on the street to name the primary symptom of Tourette syndrome (TS), we bet that at least seven will say something about uncontrollable cursing. But if you ask 10 people with TS whether they experience uncontrollable cursing, statistically, only one will say yes. That's right: Only 10 percent of individuals with TS have coprolalia, a weirdly whimsical medical term that comes from the Greek words for "speech" and "dung." This is a super-important myth to correct, according to the Tourette Association of America, because it leads to prejudices against people with TS.

Myth #2: Tourette Syndrome Is a Mental Illness

TS is technically a neurological disorder in the same camp as epilepsy, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis. Those disorders are traditionally distinguished from mental illnesses (aka psychiatric disorders) like depression, schizophrenia, and PTSD. In any case, while TS is not a psychiatric disorder, many people with TS also have psychiatric disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In fact, up to 80 percent of children with TS have ADHD.

Myth #3: People With Tourette Syndrome Can Control It If They Want To

TS is a type of tic disorder, which means it leads people to twitch, perform certain movements, or make sounds suddenly and repeatedly. That could include simple motor tics like blinking or jerking, simple vocal tics like grunting, complex motor tics that resemble purposeful movements like body rocking or head nodding, or complex vocal tics that consist of actual syllables, words, or phrases. Tics might appear out of nowhere to outsiders, but people can often feel them coming on, and that means they can suppress them — for a little while, anyway. But just like you can only suppress scratching an itch for a little while, there comes a time when people with tics need to give into them. Luckily, medication and behavioral therapy can help reduce the number of tics a person experiences.

Myth #4: You Can Grow Out of Tourette Syndrome

Here's a surprising statistic: According to the CDC, 1 in every 360 U.S. children between the ages of 6 and 17 have been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, but other studies estimate that an equal number of children have TS but are undiagnosed. The condition can get better with age, but it never goes away. One study that followed 42 children found that tic severity peaked at age 10, and at age 18 nearly half of the participants reported experiencing no tics in the previous week. Still, many adults still experience tics, and in some cases, those tics can actually get worse.

Myth #5: People With Tourette Syndrome Can't Lead Normal Lives

Like most disorders, TS happens on a spectrum. The most severe cases can be debilitating, but many, many people with TS lead normal, even supremely successful lives. Dan Aykroyd, David Beckham, Howie Mandel, and possibly Kurt Cobain and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart all live or lived with the condition.

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To hear one man's inspiring story of overcoming Tourette syndrome and landing his dream job, check out "Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had" by Brad Cohen. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer August 22, 2018

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