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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Suffering from Tourettes

Q. As a school counselor, I have two students with Tourettes. One of them recently came back from hospital appointment where the staff had told him and his family not to worry as he will probably never get to college. What famous people have existed that are sufferers of Tourettes? I want to tell the staff at that facility how damaging their statement could be to a student.

A. I agree with you--that was a very unhelpful statement, if accurately reported (it may be useful to check with the staff of the hospital before assuming they really discouraged the student from attending college). To be sure, individuals with Tourette Syndrome (TS) may show decreased quality of life based on certain measures, including vocational function (Elstner et al, Acta Psychiatr Scand 2001 Jan;103(1):52-9).

On the other hand, in some TS patients, tics will ebb in severity and will no longer be problematic in the adult years (Bruun & Budman, Neurol Clin 1997 May;15(2):291-8). With respect to famous people, it is always hazardous to claim knowledge of the diagnosis in these cases, without documented clinical evidence.

However, you may want to log on to an interesting website describing such notables who are reputed to have had TS (http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/ts.html). This site notes that the great lexicographer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), "...had almost constant tics and movements. He often made repeated noises and... was also compulsive, engaging in complex rituals before going through a doorway (such as making certain gestures many times before leaving a room). Although this is circumstantial evidence, it is probable that Dr. Johnson had Tourette syndrome."

There is even some speculation that Mozart may have suffered from TS! The site lists a number of other notables (including basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) who apparently have TS and have done quite well for themselves. Of course, in evaluating TS patients, it is important to rule out co-occuring learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) before offering scholastic or vocational guidance.

I would suggest discussing the case with the hospital staff, and trying to determine what (if any) neuropsychological data were obtained during the student's admission. Depending on the outcome, you may or may not want to come down hard on their assessment. But-the bottom line is certainly that with appropriate treatment, there is no reason to assume that TS alone rules out attending college.

February 2003

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