Five myths about Tourette’s syndrome

profile picture of Bianca Clarke
Cognitive Behaviour Therapist
02 April 2024
Next review due April 2027

Tourette’s syndrome is a condition that affects the brain and nervous system. It causes people to make sudden movements or sounds that they can’t always control. These are called tics. Tourette’s is common, but there are still misconceptions about the syndrome. This lack of understanding can make life harder for people with Tourette’s. In this article, I’ll share five common myths about Tourette’s syndrome and discuss the truth behind each one.

A teacher talking to a child

1. People with Tourette’s syndrome use inappropriate language or gestures

Some people with Tourette’s may experience uncontrollable tics where they use language or gestures that could be considered rude or inappropriate. This is also known as coprophenomena. Examples include swearing, offensive comments, or inappropriate hand gestures.

This is one of the most widely known symptoms of Tourette’s. However, it’s not that common, and doesn’t happen to everyone with Tourette’s. About one in ten people with Tourette’s syndrome have these tics. During these tics, a person may say or do things that they don’t mean. It’s important to understand that these outbursts can’t be controlled.

2. Everyone with tics must have Tourette’s syndrome

Tics are usually associated with having Tourette’s syndrome. However, you can experience tics without having this diagnosis.

You may have ‘functional tics’ without having Tourette’s. These are involuntary physical movements caused by a miscommunication in the brain. Functional tics are harder to control and are often triggered by anxiety. This may be caused by the release of chemicals in the brain when we’re stressed. Tics can also be a symptom of other conditions where anxiety is experienced, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or generalised anxiety disorder.

Tourette’s syndrome shares similarities with other tic disorders. For example, people with Tourette’s may also get functional tics, and their tics can be made worse by stress. However, to receive a Tourette’s diagnosis, your tics must have started in childhood and occurred for more than a year.

3. If I can’t see or hear the tics, the Tourette’s must have gone

You might assume that if someone isn’t noticeably displaying tics that they no longer have Tourette’s syndrome. However, people with Tourette’s can find strategies to prevent or suppress their tics.

Tic suppression can happen for some individuals if they really concentrate. This is likely to occur in certain social environments such as a school classroom. Not everyone is able to suppress their tics and it can take a lot of mental energy. Tics can also be prevented by shifting focus onto something else or reducing feelings of anxiety and stress.

The absence of tics is usually temporary and does not mean the condition has disappeared. For example, a child’s tics may continue outside of the classroom or when they’re not trying to suppress them. It’s important to know that even though some people can suppress their tics for a short time, tics are normally uncontrollable.

People can learn to manage their tics through behavioural therapy. Comprehensive behavioural intervention for tics (CBIT) can help to reverse habits and manage tics in stressful situations. Tics also often improve with age.

4. Tourette’s syndrome is rare

Tourette’s is often perceived as an extremely rare syndrome, but it’s relatively common. It affects one in every 100 school children and over 300,000 children and adults in the UK.

Some people’s tics may be less noticeable or less frequent than others. Many people don’t receive a diagnosis until years after their tics start.

5. Having Tourette’s syndrome means you can’t live a normal life

Living with Tourette’s syndrome can be difficult, but it doesn’t stop people from living happy and normal lives. People with Tourette’s often have successful careers and may be able to think more creatively. Tics don’t have to stop you from achieving your goals, and you may find that focusing on a task can improve your tics.

With time, you will likely become used to living with Tourette’s syndrome, and tics usually improve with age. Neurodiversity can bring many benefits and is something to be celebrated!

We now offer GP appointments for children under 18. Find out more about our Under 18 GP Service, call us on 0330 822 3072.

profile picture of Bianca Clarke
Bianca Clarke
Cognitive Behaviour Therapist



Annie Fry, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

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    • Tic disorders: Summary. BMJ Best Practice., reviewed January 2024
    • Colautti L, Magenes S, Rago S et al. Creative Thinking in Tourette’s Syndrome: An Uncharted Topic. Front Psychol. 2021; 12: 649814. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.649814

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