Taking time to know Tourette's

6th April 2001 at 01:00
David Thomas explains aspects of a condition that is all too easily mistaken for misbehaviour

Paul is 16, tall, dark, good-looking and a great drummer. He has a music studio in the basement at home and now goes to music college. He has everything going for him but for one thing: he has Tourette's syndrome. At school he was unable to cope with peer group taunts and some teachers' lack of knowledge and understanding. School for him was an obstacle course. At home, as a result, he was difficult with his parents. He could not wait to leave school, and since leaving has felt as if a great weight has been lifted and he is a different person. Tourette's tics and grimaces remain but the coping problems have gone.

Tourette's syndrome is a neurological disorder first described by the Frenchman after whom it is named in 1885. Few people understand it. It is characterised by tics - involuntary, rapid, sudden movements, or uncontrolled vocalisations, problems that wax and wane in severity. The tics come out no matter how hard sufferers try to suppress them. In fact, trying to suppress or control a tic makes it worse. Under stress, the tics can become stronger.

Current research indicates that certain drugs can be used to influence and control these tics and movements, since this is a syndrome involving chemical disorders of the brain. But research also shows that these same drugs can also cause unwanted side-effects.

The significance for teachers is that Tourette's is a syndrome that can also sometimes be associated with other problems - attention deficit, hyperactivity, impulse control, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and some learning disabilities. It is a complex area and teachers need to be knowledgeable. Schools need to educate pupils, perhaps in PSHE lessons, which could develop their understanding and reduce teasing.

There is now a fund of internet website material available and these websites detail support groups and provide a mass of information.

Paul was a dreamer at school and found writing difficult. There were days when he would not attend. There were occasions hen he just walked out if he had had enough of the pressure or the taunts. On these occasions, his mood was sullen and dark, the bedroom door was blocked with a chair and he would adamantly refuse to emerge.

When he put his mind to it he had the ability to do good work, but he was in a special needs category mainly for his dreaminess and slowness. Teachers did notice his tics, he was in taught small groups much of the time, he had counselling; but though his parents spoke to staff about it, Tourette's was never acknowledged as being the root of his problems.

Imagine a 15-year-old sitting staring out of the window dreaming, seemingly uninterested in the lesson, and when he says something it comes out as a sudden, confrontational, half-finished outburst. To you this student is behaving like a surly teenager simply laying down a challenge. How much better it would be if you knew he suffered from Tourette's and that he was displaying associated disorders. On some days Paul's attendance at school was an achievement in itself.

Paul is my son. As a former primary headteacher I held the view that there were reasons for pupils' behaviour difficulties or poor learning skills.

Some Tourette's facts:

* It is more common in males.

* It does not affect a pupil's intelligence.

* Evidence suggests genetic inheritance.

* It is thought that 3 per cent of the school population may suffer, many unaware of why they have these habits, with teachers equally unaware of these pupils' condition.

All teachers need to know more about it so as to avoid compounding the difficulties that many victims experience.


TOURETTE Syndrome (UK) Association, PO Box 26149 Dunfermline KY12 9WT Helpline: 01892 669151

Web: www.tsa.org.uk

Reading:'Tourette Syndrome - A Practical Guide for Teachers'. pound;15 available from the TSA, as above.

'Passing for Normal'. By Amy Wilensky. From Telegraph Books Direct, 24 Seward Street, London EC1V 3GB Tel: 0870 155 7222 pound;7.99. Freepost for teachers

Websites www.tourettesyndrome.co.uk


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