Tourette’s Syndrome, a neurological disorder marked by physical and verbal tics, is not related to autism. Although kids with autism who are on the low functioning end of the spectrum have a tendency to “vocalize” in shrieks and screams, this is because they are unable to express in words what is bothering them, what they need, or anything else we regularly convey to each other and take for granted. Tics with Tourette’s are things which the person cannot control, and they are not trying to convey or communicate anything; it just comes out when they are nervous or afraid or angry.
There has been some recent contention that low functioning autistic children who scream a lot may have Tourette’s, but since there really isn’t a way to test this, no one knows for sure. Tourette’s also runs in families, although the specific gene hasn’t been identified. The tics that are so much a signature symptom of Tourette’s have to be well-documented for at least one year before it can be thoroughly diagnosed.
Tourette’s and autism do share some common features, but they are not singularly part of this or that disorder. Autism begins usually before the age of three, while Tourette’s typically doesn’t start until three. Tourette’s symptoms get worse in adolescence, but the symptoms of autism are pretty much the same across an individual’s life. Both Tourette’s and autism can present with ADHD characteristics, making it impossible to tell whether or not ADHD actually exists or if it’s just the Tourette’s or autism. Tourette’s can also closely resemble OCD, obsessive/compulsive disorder, because they are compelled against their wills to do things repeatedly, even if they know that it’s not necessary to wash their hands for five minutes every hour.
Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders may repeat words, sounds or actions simply because they enjoy the rewarding stimulation they get from repeating the behavior. For them, it’s not a matter of compulsion, but rather a desire to repeat. Clinicians who are unfamiliar with autism (which is now quite rare!) might diagnose their behavior as Tourette’s, but again, the behavior has to be well-documented by a family member or care giver for at least one year before any clinician would even consider it.
Another key feature is that a brain scan would reveal certain areas of the brain affected by Tourette’s, whereas the entire size and shape of the brain is altered by someone with autism. This is not a typical means of diagnosis for Tourette’s or autism, but might be a last resort if doctors are the least unsure about which is which. Tourette’s affects the neurotransmitters in the brain, resulting in a lot of mood disorders for a person with Tourette’s as well. Taking mood stabilizers with particularly positive results may mean that the person doesn’t have autism, but is, in fact, affected by Tourette’s.
N o matter what the outcome, there is a distinct separation between Tourette’s and autism. Parents should not settle for the first diagnosis they are given, especially without documentation.
1). Is there a link between cerebral palsy and autism?