Teacher Professor

October 27, 2010

Excusing Tourette’s

Filed under: Tourette's Syndrome — Teacher Professor @ 1:03 pm

I read last night where the lawyer for the “Hiccup Girl“, who is accused of murder, is considering using Tourette’s as her “excuse”.  I’m absolutely livid.  I can see Tourette’s as a reason for:

  • Spitting in public
  • Rolling eyes
  • Body twitches
  • Impulsive calling out
  • Cursing
  • General crankiness
  • Funny accents

But as an excuse for murder?  I think the lawyer is doing the field of disability a tremendous disservice- and he clearly doesn’t understand the difference between Excuse and Reason- a difference I have made very clear to my own children.

A Reason,  as we define it in our family, and as I teach my teacher education students, is the psychological or biological need that someone is trying to fulfill- the need for attention, the need for food, the need to feel in control of your life.  These are needs, and Maslow does a much better job than I do of describing them.  Reasons are essentially the need to seek something, or escape something. 

We all have reasons for behavior:

  • I am anxious and so I twirl my hair to escape the anxiety
  • I am not feeling connected, and so I reach for a hug from my husband
  • The noise level of the store is too high and so I scream.
  • I had a bad day at work and so I eat ice cream to make it better
  • A friend of mine never had a good relationship with his mother and so he drinks.  A lot.

There are always reasons…

But EXCUSES– excuses are when when you’re truly not in control of your response and haven’t learned how to be in control of your response. 

  • My child has autism and fixates on Legos during socially inappropriate times- that’s an excuse. 
  • My child has Tourettes and spits when he’s tired- that’s an excuse
  • Someone has diabetes and faints- that’s definitely an excuse. 

The line becomes blurry when others make the judgment about whether something is a reason or an excuse.  Recently, Brian King noted that his son with Aspergers had been bullied and was called a “retard” by a neighborhood kid.  He sent out a letter to the neighborhood parents explaining why his son Zach was so intense and stubborn.  He wasn’t just providing a reason; he was providing an excuse.  Zach, his son with Aspergers, could not control his social issues.  The mother of the boy who did the namecalling apologized for her son and stated that her son had been bullied himself and he was taking it out on Zach.  She was making the distinction between the reason the boy was a bully, but took responsibility for the choices he could make in his words, and so there was no excuse for his behavior.  When choices are possible, there are no excuses, despite there being reasons. 

We are judged all the time by others who assume that our children have control over things that they cannot control.  That little girl screaming in a toy store?  Autism.  That other little girl lashing out at other children?  Autism.  My son lapsing into an Australian accent?  Tourettes.  And even my daughter’s fixation on getting things perfect and exactly lined up?  Autism combined with Giftedness.  In all of these cases, the “thing”, the neurological difference, the chemical imbalance, the NEED was far bigger than the will.  There are no possible choices available to the child.  As I remind my children when they make judgements “Do you think that the child WANTED to behave this way?” These are excuses.

But reasons are just that- reasons.  Our will, our mind, our choices can often control them and change the outcome.  Freud called it the battle of the ego “I” to balance between the ID of the “want” and the superego of the moral “should”.  And that balance is a constant teaching moment and at times a battle.  The size of the battle can be enormous and people going through that battle need sympathy and understanding and support.  The reasons might be ENORMOUS, but if there are other possibilities available to them, they are not complete excuses. 

  • When I eat that ice cream at the end of the rotten day, I have a reason for eating it, but not a real excuse.
  • When my friend drinks to excess and ruins his relationship with his wife, he certainly has a good reason, and it is a significant battle, but ultimately, it is not an excuse.
  • When my son with Tourettes calls another child a name, he has several reasons for doing so, but it is not an excuse.

And that line between reason and excuse is one that is so highly dependent on the developmental level of the child, the context, the level of control and the level of need.  When my daughter whines because she doesn’t like the food, I have to make the call “Is this autism or is this just whining 4th grader?”   On any given day, she might have control of the whining, and she might not. 

Recently, my mother pointed out something to me that I’ve been pondering ever since.  My son has a Tourette’s tic where he spits.  Gross, to say the least.  But everything I’ve read said that kids with Tourette’s can’t control it and that to call attention to it makes it worse.  So, for months, we’ve ignored the wet spots on our carpet, the wet spots on our table and the wet spots on the couch.  My mother, recognizing that while he may not be able to control his act of spitting, he can perhaps control where it goes, asked him to carry Kleenex to spit into.  He hates it.  He hates holding it; he hates being reminded of his Tourette’s and he hates dealing with it.  So, he has decreased his spitting.  A lot.  The discomfort of the Kleenex is worse to him than the spitting.  It acts as a reminder to him, as a means of managing it.  I ask him to spit into a Kleenex, he growls at me, he picks it up, and he stops spitting-…during the day.  At night, when he’s tired, when his energy is low, when he’s trying to self-regulate everything, the need to spit is more than he can manage- and so he spits at night.  We are now shifting our focus to his managing his symptoms- not controlling them.  He can’t control his Tourette’s- but he can manage it.  Tourette’s is not an excuse for most of his behavior.  It might be a reason, but with self-management, it is not an excuse.  My mother taught me that even though he has Tourette’s, my son is capable of much more than even I thought. 

I understand that the lawyer is looking for an excuse for murder.  There are probably several “good” reasons for murder- whether they make it to “excuse” is somethat highly debatable.  They all involve a perception of choices and possibilities:

  • If someone has such a low intelligence or in such a deranged mental state that the understanding of someone else’s right to life is not there- that might be an excuse.
  • Beaten Person Syndrome where a person is consistently beaten over and over again and is so controlled by someone else that they only see murder as the way out of their own eventual death- that might be an excuse. 
  • Fear for your own life where you kill or be killed- that is an excuse.

In all of these “excuses”, there are no other possibilities, there are no other choices. Which is why this lawyer’s use of Tourettes as an excuse for murder is so offensive to me.  What he is trying to argue is that Tourette’s is so unmanagable, that there is no control, that children are so controlled by their Tourettes that they have no self-control choices at all.  Even to the point of committing murder.  I can understand that someone spits; I can understand that someone calls out; I can understand that someone can’t sit still- Tourette’s is clearly an excuse for these behaviors.  I can even understand that Tourette’s may be a excuse that she wants something from someone very badly and has a tantrum that she can’t have it. 

When I told my son about this news, he looked shocked and said “That’s… that’s.. that’s just WRONG!”

Tourette’s as an reason for murder?  That’s no excuse.


  1. This news about Hiccup Girl infuriates me. I can’t believe the attorney may use Tourette Syndrome as a defense for murder. Unbelieveable. Going through life with Tourette Syndrome is difficult and we really don’t need the negative sensationalism. Instead I wish the media would spend time raising awareness about TS. Thanks for writing about this.

    Comment by WI Snowflake — October 30, 2010 @ 6:48 pm | Reply

  2. […] Portillo did not have the support of a trained special education teacher.  She did not have the excuse of a label.  And so, she tried a teaching game- one in which Alex was supposed to learn that […]

    Pingback by Failing a Second Chance « Professor Mother Blog — December 6, 2010 @ 10:03 am | Reply

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