Tourette’s Disorder Basics

Tics are sudden, recurrent, involuntary movements or vocalizations. If a child has both motor and vocal tics, he is diagnosed with Tourette's disorder. This guide explains how tics affect children, and how to diagnose and treat Tourette’s.

Tourette’s: What Is It?

Tourette’s disorder is a neurological condition characterized by involuntary movements and sounds called “tics.”  Tics are sudden, rapid, recurrent, nonrhythmic movements or vocalizations. Different children have different tics, such as blinking, twitching, barking, throat clearing, coughing, or repeating certain words.  Some people with the disorder experience outbursts of profanity, although this particular tic is actually quite rare. To be diagnosed with Tourette’s a child must have both motor and vocal tics which have persisted—though they may wax and wane—for at least a year.

Tourette’s: What to Look For

Children with Tourette’s disorder usually begin exhibiting tics around seven to 10 years of age, and they reach their peak during adolescence. For many children, symptoms diminish or disappear in early adulthood. Motor tics, such as blinking and twitching of the face, head, neck, and/or shoulders, often occur before vocal tics like barking and repeating words. Not all tics indicate Tourette’s; unless your child has both motor and vocal tics, he doesn’t have the disorder.

Tourette’s: Risk Factors

Boys are at least twice as likely to be diagnosed with Tourette’s than girls. Genetic links to tic disorders have been identified; children with a family history of the disorder are more likely to develop them.

Tourette’s: Diagnosis

To be diagnosed with Tourette’s disorder, a child must exhibit multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic for an extended period—more than a year.  These tics occur regularly, and no tic-free period lasts longer than a few months.  Only people under the age of 18 are diagnosed with Tourette’s.

Tourette’s: Treatment

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

Psychotherapeutic: While tics are involuntary, children can sometimes learn to suppress their tics through a kind of behavioral therapy called “habit reversal.” Habit reversal teaches children to recognize their individual tics and perform actions that are incompatible with them each time the tic impulse is anticipated. Other psychotherapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy, can help children learn to cope with their Tourette’s syndrome as well as any co-existing disorders. In addition, peers and teachers can be educated about the condition so that they can provide caring support for a young person with the disorder.

Pharmacological: There are a variety of medications commonly prescribed to help control the symptoms of Tourette’s disorder, and an experienced professional should closely monitor any course. A doctor may prescribe neuroleptic medications, which appear to help control tics by blocking the brain’s dopamine neurotransmitters.

Tourette’s: Risk For Other Disorders

Many children diagnosed with Tourette’s disorder also have other psychiatric disorders, in particular ADHD and OCD.