USF brings light to Tourette syndrome

Special to the Oracle

Many people incorrectly assume those diagnosed with Tourette syndrome constantly spew obscenity at inappropriate — if not comically cruel —moments.

Though the Tourette Syndrome Association (TSA) estimates around 200,000 children are diagnosed with the disorder each year in the U.S., the multifaceted disorder is still surrounded by misconception.

Earlier this month, the Rothman Center at USF Health was recognized by the TSA as an Associate Center of Excellence for its work treating individuals with the condition. 

Omar Rahman, USF professor and clinical psychologist at the Rothman Center, said it’s inaccurate to think of Tourette as the cursing disease. 

“The single biggest misconception is that Tourette’s is going around cursing out loud, but actually that’s a fairly rare form of Tourette’s,” he said. “I’ve been working in this area for seven years or so, and that behavior is largely the exception.” 

Tourette syndrome is defined as a tic disorder in which the patient may suffer from a variety of motor or vocal tics. Grunts and throat clearing are more common vocal tics than blurting out obscenities. 

Nonetheless, there are rare cases of tics such as punching oneself in the face or making inappropriate comments.  

Dr. Tanya Murphy, a USF professor and Rothman Center chair member, also said some people are cynical of these dramatic tics and think they are intentional misbehavior. 

“Sometimes I think there are individuals who think they do this on purpose,” she said. “It’s not on purpose.” 

The Rothman Center uses a combination of pharmacological and behavioral techniques to treat the disorder. Comprehensive Behavioral Intervention for Tics (CBIT) is the Center’s primary means of behavior-based treatment. 

Rahman said habit-reversal therapy, under the CBIT umbrella, is a way to help empower those with Tourette. 

“With the right early intervention, kids can learn to lead perfectly normal, happy lives,” he said. 

Murphy also stressed Tourette syndrome is treatable. 

“They’re often very gifted and talented individuals that can do whatever they want,” she said. “Sometimes it gets to be impairing and socially-isolating, but for the most part they’re very capable.” 

A less-known fact about Tourette is also that it has comorbidity with other disorders. This means the syndrome appears alongside other conditions such as Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  

“They overlap a fair bit; for example, we often see approximately 50 percent of children with OCD have tic disorders, and one-third of those with tic disorders have OCD,” Murphy said. 

Rahman said it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between milder forms of Tourette syndrome and OCD at first, giving the examples of tapping or touching.

“There are some behaviors that kids have that sort of float this borderline between OCD and Tourette’s,” he said. “Is it more of a compulsion or a tic?”

Rahman also said a key difference between Tourette syndrome and OCD is anxiety. The compulsions in OCD are rooted in anxious thoughts, whereas the tics found in Tourette syndrome are more of an automatic behavior and are not necessarily linked to obsessions.

A key to the future of a child with Tourette syndrome, Rahman said, is early diagnosis and treatment.

“If you’re a parent or somebody with kids that have Tourette’s, there’s very good expert treatment out there,” he said. “If you have somebody with Tourette’s, the best outcomes tend be when you go to see experts who deal with Tourette’s.”

The Rothman Center also participates in spreading awareness along with performing treatment. According to Murphy, the Center has been involved in golf tournaments, runs and focus groups in the hopes of spreading information to the public.

Murphy said this was a main reason that the TSA distinguished the Rothman Center.

“We have an excellent group of clinicians and researchers that work in a multi-disciplinary approach,” she said. “We have done a number of research studies on tic disorders and related disorders, like anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.” 

Murphy was also pleased to be recognized alongside respected universities, such as Emory and Florida. 

“The designation is an honor, to be recognized as one of the top centers in clinical and research,” she said. “I think we have an excellent collection of researchers, with almost a full-time dedication.”