By Brittany Fitcher
Let’s face it. Kids do weird things for no apparent reason. My younger brothers used to run around the house with my mother’s pantyhose pulled down over their faces for fun. During my student teaching, my second graders would take the opportunity to burp the ABCs during writing time because apparently, we didn’t know it well enough in common English. However, there comes a time and place when the parent really begins to worry. For my parents, it was probably when I would cry because I was afraid I’d fail at a math-facts timed test that I knew inside and out. Or it could have been when I began to blink and clear my throat constantly. It also could have been when I began to lay awake in my bed for hours every night, worrying that the electrical wiring in the house would catch fire. I was seven. My parents’ concern resulted in an appointment for me with a pediatric neurologist. We discovered that I had Tourette’s Syndrome and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder tendencies.
Tourette’s Syndrome (TS) is a common neurological disorder. It affects the part of the brain that controls involuntary movements, according to the National Tourette Syndrome Association.1 While an individual with TS has the same motor skills as the next person, he also has tics. Tics are involuntary movements of the hands, arms, facial muscles, and other parts of the body.2 According to the website, Tourette Syndrome “Plus,” there are both vocal and physical tics.3 For example, physical tics often include blinking, shrugging, muscle tightening, and unnecessary hand movements; vocal tics can include making sounds like grunting, throat clearing, or even repetition of certain words or phrases. It’s important to note that very few cases involve constant swearing the way the media often portrays people with Tourette’s.
Children with TS also struggle with high anxiety levels. While everyone has high anxiety now and then, usually brought on by stressful events, individuals with Tourette’s have a nearly constant anxiety. The stress is linked directly to the tics. I am nearly always stressed and nearly always have a need to tic, but when my stress level rises, my tics become much more intense. This problem can be exacerbated when someone notices my tics. The fact that they have singled me out raises my stress level. Therefore, my tics worsen. Although I have learned to explain my disorder as an adult, the thought of talking about it to someone was dreadful and terrifying to me as a child.
Related to Tourette’s is another common disorder known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD.) Many people have heard of or seen individuals who fear germs so much that they wash their hands 35 times a day, but that’s just one example of many OCD behaviors. The general thought behind the obsessive behavior is that something bad will happen if a task isn’t done just perfectly. This can range in behaviors from touching objects a certain way a certain number of times, to jumping over a line in the rug just right, to spending four times the average amount of time on a homework assignment so it will be perfect. Just like individuals with TS, individuals with OCD also have very high levels of anxiety. It’s kind of like having a tic of the brain. Rather than having constant behaviors, the individual has obsessive thoughts. And while the rationale might seem ridiculous, the fear is very real to the individual.
Homeschooling a child with TS can be challenging. To begin with, the child has little actual control over his tics. It’s possible for him to hold them off briefly, but the delay will usually end up in a barrage of tics that is even greater than the original action he tried to stop. These tics will probably make it more difficult to do school assignments because they’re distracting. A child with TS will not understand what is happening to his body unless someone explains it to him, and after that, he will need constant reminders that he is a precious creation in the sight of God. My parents always encouraged and lifted me up with their words, but it still took me years to realize that I wasn’t broken, and that God had made me different for a purpose. It is essential that parents of children with TS or other disorders remember to give constant encouragement to their children, and pray for them.
Besides words of encouragement and prayer, here are some tips that my mother used to help me during our homeschool years, along with tips that I learned on my own.
Exercise – Exercise raises endorphin levels. This can lower anxiety by bringing a greater balance of chemicals to the brain. I feel best when I exercise at least three or four times a week. Exercise can often do the same work that a prescription medicine does but without the side effects.
Breaks – Whether it’s taking five seconds, closing my eyes, and taking a long breath, or getting up and doing something non-stressful for a few minutes, breaks during stressful activities can really make a difference. Homeschooling provides the perfect opportunity for this because the family can set the schedule around what the child needs.
Journaling – When my mother discovered my anxieties, she got me a journal so that I could channel my anxieties. Whenever I was worried or scared, I could write about it. Usually, the simple act of writing it down would help me understand that it was something I didn’t need to worry about so much.
Comfort Objects – My hands will tic if they’re not busy, so I keep a comfort object with me at all times. My personal comfort object is an Air Force coin. If the object is small, it can often distract my hands from needing to tic so much because I’m still expending energy by fingering it.
Busy Hands – In addition to my comfort item, I often draw or make lists when I’m listening to a sermon or lecture. It seems contradictory that making my brain busy with my hands would help me focus better, but it works. I have friends who do this when they’re learning as well.
Conversation with God – This is the most important of all coping strategies. A child who learns to rely on God in times of anxiety will learn peace. Reading the scriptures, talking to God, and singing His praises have brought me comfort over and over again. While it doesn’t get rid of my TS, it reminds me that He is always taking care of me.
Homeschooling a child with Tourette’s has its challenges, but it also has its blessings. Because I was so worried about understanding things, I was curious about everything. Homeschooling allowed my mother to set my learning pace at whatever I needed, which was usually fast. Knowledge was candy to me. I graduated from a dual high school-college program as Salutatorian and went on to get my university degree in elementary education. Parents make all the difference in the lives of their children with disorders. My mother opened my world.
People with one neurological disorder often have symptoms of another, if not complete second neurological disorder.4 The severity of neurological disorders varies in all individuals.
Brittany Fichter is an Air Force wife who writes about her personal experiences with Tourette’s Syndrome, OCD tendencies, and anxiety, as well as the disorders she has seen in children she’s worked with over the years. Brittany was homeschooled as a child, as was her husband, and she now has a degree in elementary education. She currently works with children at an elementary school. Although living with her disorders keeps life full of challenges, Brittany’s desire is to share with others how God uses our trials to bring about His purposes in our lives—to make us more like Him. Her website and blog can be read at www.brittanyfichterwrites.com.
- Anitha Pasupathy, P. (2002-2003). Investigation of Neural Mechanisms in the Basal Ganglia and Prefrontal Cortex Underlying the Acquisition of Behavior-Guiding Rules. Retrieved May 10, 2012, from National Tourette Syndrome Association: http://tsa-usa.org/aResearch/gran/2002_pasu.html
- Association, N. T. (2012). What is Tourette Syndrome? Retrieved May 10, 2012, from National Tourette Syndrome Association: http://www.tsa-usa.org/aMedical/whatists.html
- Leslie E. Packer, P. (2011, March). Overview of Tourette’s Syndrome. Retrieved May 10, 2012, from Tourette Syndrome “Plus”: http://www.tourettesyndrome.net/disorders/tourette%E2%80%99s-syndrome/overview-of-tourettes-syndrome/
- Lombroso, P. J., & Scahill, L. (2007, October 15). Tourette Syndrome and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Retrieved May 10, 2012, from National Institutes of Health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2291145/
Copyright, 2014. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, July/August 2014. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.