Guest Commentary: Tourette’s Syndrome Deserves TV Respect

Feb 9, 2004  •  Post A Comment

You’ve seen it on numerous television shows. A character spouts a stream of obscenities or behaves outrageously, and the comic reference is glibly explained away as a case of Tourette’s.
That kind of exposure of the neurological disorder known as Tourette’s syndrome is a double-edged sword for those who actually live with this often baffling and frustrating illness that afflicts more than 200,000 Americans.
On one hand, it brings important information to the public, often helping to diagnose the condition. On the other hand, the symptoms are all too frequently exploited for sensationalism or easy laughs. As a television producer and a father whose children have been afflicted with TS, I believe it is important to get the facts out and to present them responsibly in the media.
Why? Let me share with you a typical comment I have heard many times over the years: “People shouted at me that I was crazy and out of control and shouldn’t be allowed out in public. The symptoms I had were really bothering me, but I couldn’t even put a name to them until I heard about something called Tourette’s syndrome on the air.”
Thanks to this kind of exposure, this year more people will learn they have TS through the media than in a doctor’s office.
Just what is this baffling condition, named after French neurologist Georges Gilles de la Tourette, who first described a series of cases in 1885? TS is marked by repetitive involuntary movements and sounds called tics. While symptoms may wax and wane over the long run, they tend to taper off with age. What causes it? No definitive answer as yet, but research points to a complex abnormality in brain chemistry. Intelligence and life span are no different from the general population, and TS affects about three times as many males as females.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, famous for his dictionary and wit, had classic TS symptoms that have been recorded in detail. Mozart also exhibited the symptoms. Many Touretters are enormously creative and smart.
So what’s the harm in these media distortions? Just put yourself, for example, in the place of a college admissions officer. He has seen a sitcom where a raucous laugh track is amplified when a character with TS mentions his so-called “cursing habit.” The assessment of the applicant has been compromised. A potential employer of such an applicant will be apt to think twice before offering her a job.
This goes to the heart of the greatest myth about TS. The fact is that strange behaviors and outbursts of inappropriate language often seen on TV shows are not typical TS symptoms. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of those with the misunderstood ailment are prone to uttering profanities. The vast majority have different symptoms and lead productive lives.
There is little doubt that media exploitation of this medical condition does foster unjust discrimination. So when is a joke not funny? When it fosters a myth at the expense of a vulnerable segment of the community. The Tourette Syndrome Association said the effect is especially poignant when a child with TS is affected by such jokes and brought to tears. Often the child refuses to attend school or even leave the house for fear of ridicule.
This is in no way meant to discourage anyone from including a story line relating to TS in a TV program. If anything, it is to be encouraged. However, this is a plea to get accurate information and to give it proper context.
One fact is that at present there is no known cure. However, there are a number of medications that can reduce symptoms and nonmedication approaches that seem to work for some.
When you portray TS on your TV show, all we ask is that you make sure you get it right. Our children may not be very good at listening to us, but they never fail to imitate us. We must show them that the context may sometimes be unfair or untrue, but our level of talent and imagination is so creative that we can do this job without hurting a vulnerable segment of society.
Jeffrey Kramer is an Emmy-winning TV and movie producer. He is president of Juniper Place Productions in Los Angeles.