Teacher with Tourette’s shares his journey towards confidence

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, August 27, 2007)

By Mary Delach Leonard St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Even over the phone, there is no ignoring the frequent vocal tics that splinter Brad Cohen’s speech: the odd barks, the wooping noises, the wah-wah-wahs.

But Cohen, 33, soldiers on, describing Tourette’s syndrome with an acceptance that illustrates the peace he has made with this neurological disorder, characterized by vocal noises and spasmlike movements that he cannot control. He refers to Tourette’s as his friend — always with him, through good times and bad.

Given a choice, Cohen would prefer direct questions about his condition rather than stares from people who don’t understand why his head jerks or why he lets out a “woop” several times a minute.

“People in our society don’t know how to react to someone who is different,” Cohen said. “By keeping things open and honest, it gives people a window to take a peek into your life. There can be empathy. Walk in my shoes for a moment to know what Brad’s life is like.”

Cohen, who grew up in St. Louis and now lives in Atlanta, will share his philosophy of perseverance Sept. 8 at a benefit for the St. Louis chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association. His book “Front of the Class” (VanderWyk and Burnham, 2005, $22.95) details his uphill battle to become an elementary schoolteacher so that he could help children overcome obstacles in their own lives. He has been honored by the state of Georgia for his classroom achievements.

For Cohen, the turning point came in junior high, when he stood before a school assembly and talked matter-of-factly about what it is like to have Tourette’s. The tics didn’t stop, but some of his classmates began to reach out to him.

“I no longer felt like everyone was teaming up against me,” Cohen said. “My self-confidence went up, and I was able to focus on my strengths.”

Social acceptance can go a long way in helping to ease the lives of people with Tourette’s, said Dr. Bradley Schlaggar, a pediatric neurologist at Washington University School of Medicine who was awarded a grant from the Tourette Syndrome Association to study how the brain functions in people who have the disorder.

Treatment is difficult, Schlaggar said, because Tourette’s symptoms differ by individual and because tics come and go, varying in severity. Tics can be minimized with drugs, such as Haldol or Risperdal, but those medications have serious side effects. Unless the tic is disabling — violent head jerking, for example — drug treatment may be inadvisable.

Living with Tourette’s is further complicated by behavioral problems that can come with it: obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, or anxiety and mood disorders. Though those problems can seriously hamper learning, it is the tics that get all of the attention. Students can exert most of their energy in attempting to quell them.

“When the teacher says, ‘Stop making those noises,’ the student worries about the next tic, when he may already be having problems focusing on studying,” Schlaggar said.

He says that many people have mild tics that others find annoying — perhaps they clear their throats or sniff or blink their eyes repeatedly.

“Mild forms of Tourette’s are often not recognized,” Schlaggar said. “When I go to a basketball game, I know that several hundred people in the crowd have a form of Tourette’s. But the majority have mild symptoms.”

Schlaggar acknowledges that some tics — a repeated high-pitched squeal, for example — can test the patience of teachers, and even family members.

“It can be tough on the other kids in a classroom, admittedly, but part of life is learning to deal with distractions,” he said.

mleonard@post-dispatch.com | 314-340-8260

Copyright 2007 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc.