Seven Questions You Might Have About Tourette’s Syndrome

What is Tourette's Syndrome (TS)? This article defines what tics are, distinguishes between types of tics, and shares risk factors and challenges of living with TS.

By Ability Central

15 December, 2023

A young woman with bright red hair exhibits a facial tic, curling her lip while squeezing one eye closed

About 200,000 people in the U.S. have a severe form of Tourette's Syndrome (TS). This article will answer seven Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about TS, including: 

  • What is Tourette's Syndrome? 
  • What are the types of tics associated with Tourette’s? 
  • What are the types of tic disorders? 
  • What causes Tourette’s? 
  • What are the risk factors for TS? 
  • Is there a cure for Tourette's Syndrome? 
  • How does TS affect communication? 


What is Tourette Syndrome? 

Gilles De La Tourette’s Syndrome (commonly called just Tourette’s Syndrome or TS) is a nervous system disorder characterized by sudden, involuntary movements or sounds called tics. Tourette’s usually develops in early childhood and may improve in adulthood. 


As many as 1 in 5 school-aged children develop tics at some time, but only 1 in 50 show persistent tics that carry on into adolescence and adulthood. While some milder tic disorders are more common, Tourette’s Syndrome typically affects 1 in 160, or 0.6%, of school-aged children. 


Tics can take on multiple forms, but they are always involuntary. Some tics are mild and hardly noticeable, while others can be debilitating or even physically harmful. Interestingly, tics frequently change in type, frequency, and severity, sometimes in response to things like stress or fatigue, but often for seemingly no reason at all. 


This disorder goes by multiple names: 

  • Tourette’s 
  • Tourette Syndrome 
  • Tourette Disorder 
  • TS 
  • TD 


What are the types of tics associated with Tourette’s? 

TS tics vary between people, and they’re not always like what we see in the media. There are two types of tics: motor and vocal. There are also two levels of tics: simple and complex. 

  • Motor tics are movements of the body. These include blinking, shrugging the shoulders, or jerking an arm. 
  • Vocal tics are sounds that a person makes with their voice. These include humming, shouting, or clearing the throat. 
  • Simple tics are limited to just a few parts of the body. For example, squinting one’s eyes or wrinkling one’s nose. 
  • Complex tics involve multiple muscle groups or body parts, but they are often slower than simple ticks and typically have a pattern. A complex tic could consist of bobbing the head while jerking an arm, or slowly twirling in circles at a set rhythm. 


TV and film portrayals of people with TS often focus on one type of vocal tic called coprolalia. In coprolalia, someone says or shouts inappropriate things like swear words, slurs, or other unseemly phrases. However, coprolalia only affects 10-15% of people with Tourette’s, and is nowhere near as common as modern media suggests. 


What are the types of tic disorders? 

Tourette’s is the most severe form of tic disorder. The three types of tic disorders include: 

  • Provisional tic disorder: This means the tic has been present for less than one year. Tics may be motor-type, vocal-type, or a combination of both. 
  • Persistent (chronic) tic disorder: The tic has been present for more than one year. Tics can be motor-type or vocal-type, but not both. 
  • Tourette’s disorder: In severe TS, both motor and vocal tics are present, lasting more than a year. Typically, TS develops between the ages of 5 and 10, and only severe tic disorders persist into adulthood. 


What causes Tourette’s? 

Most cases of TS are genetic. A parent with Tourette’s or who carries the gene for the disorder has a 50% chance of passing it to their child. 


Some tic disorders develop without a connection to genetics. About 5% of children with TS develop tics for some other reason, including environmental factors. These might include difficulties during pregnancy, carbon monoxide poisoning, or head injuries that cause inflammation in the brain (encephalitis). 


What are the risk factors for TS? 

Roughly 1 in 20 children with Tourette’s have no genetic link or family history of tic disorders. Other risk factors include: 

  • Gender: Males are three to four times more likely to develop Tourette’s than females. 
  • Prenatal health: When a mother smokes or has health complications during pregnancy, the likelihood of the baby being born with TS increases. Low birth weight may also increase the risk of Tourette’s. 
  • Injury or illness: Brain injuries, brain inflammation, or Group B strep (a life-threatening version of the common strep infection) have all been linked to people who develop TS.


Is there a cure for Tourette Syndrome? 

There's no cure for Tourette's, but most people with tics do not need treatment for them. Most of the time, tics are mild enough to be controlled or unnoticed entirely. However, tics can sometimes be invasive, disruptive, or dangerous. Doctors use medication and behavioral therapy to prevent or lessen the impact of these tics.  


How does TS affect communication? 

The uncontrollable body movements of motor tics may make it difficult to understand someone else’s nonverbal communication, like facial expressions or body language. Vocal tics, however, may make it difficult for other people to understand what a person with TS says. 


There is also the mental and social impact of tics. Many people with Tourette’s or certain severe tics can feel embarrassed, isolated, or unfairly singled out because of their tics. Popular media portrayal doesn’t help—the assumption that a person with Tourette’s will shout swear words or slurs (coprolalia) often makes people with TS targets for mockery or for unfair treatment from authority figures.  


In addition to tics, people with Tourette’s may suffer from a variety of speech and voice complications. These might include tics like repeating their own words (palilalia) or repeating others’ words (echolalia), both of which can disrupt conversations and make communication more difficult. 


Ability Central offers a wide range of mobile devices with accessibility features that can help with the communication challenges associated with TS. In addition, we have a searchable database of nonprofit service providers nationwide to help you each step of the way. 


Where can I get more information about Tourette’s Syndrome? 

For more information on handling the long-term communication challenges associated with Tourette’s, see: 

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