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What is Tourette’s disorder?

Tourette’s disorder is a neurological disorder that causes children to make movements and sounds they cannot control. These are called tics. Tics happen suddenly and quickly. Kids with Tourette’s disorder have both motor tics (movements) and vocal tics (sounds). If a child has just one or the other, they are diagnosed with chronic motor or vocal tic disorder instead. 

Common tics include blinking, twitching, barking, coughing, and repeating words. A very small number of children have a vocal tic that causes them to curse or say inappropriate things. This is called coprolalia. 

To be diagnosed with Tourette’s disorder, a child must have regular motor and vocal tics for at least a year. These tics may come and go. 

What are the symptoms of Tourette’s disorder?

Children with Tourette’s disorder usually start having tics around seven to ten years old. Tics usually get worse during the teenage years. Motor tics often show up before vocal tics. 

Common motor tics include: 

  • Blinking 
  • Twitching 
  • Shrugging 
  • Frowning 

Common vocal tics include: 

  • Barking 
  • Coughing 
  • Clearing their throat 
  • Repeating words 
  • Humming 
  • Sniffing 

Tics usually get worse when the child is stressed. Some kids with Tourette’s disorder also get very angry suddenly and have trouble controlling their behavior. 

How is Tourette’s disorder diagnosed?

To be diagnosed with Tourette’s disorder, a child must have regular motor and vocal tics for more than a year. The tics might come and go, but they are never gone for more than a few months at a time. 

Only people under the age of 18 are diagnosed with Tourette’s disorder. Boys are diagnosed about twice as often as girls. 

How is Tourette’s disorder treated?

Tourette’s disorder cannot be cured. However, it can be treated with a combination of behavioral therapy and medication.  

The most common behavioral therapy for tic disorders is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) called habit reversal training. It involves: 

  • Teaching the child to recognize the feeling before a tic. 
  • Helping the child understand what situations cause their tics. 
  • Practicing doing something different when they know they will have a tic. This action will be something that is not as obvious to others. For example, a child whose tic is sniffing can learn to do a breathing exercise instead.  

There are several medications that a doctor can prescribe to help control tics. Neuroleptic medications are most common. Children who take medication should be monitored by an experienced medical professional. 

Risk for other disorders

It’s common for children with Tourette’s disorder to experience other mental health disorders. These conditions can include attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).  

This guide was last reviewed or updated on September 7, 2021.