Tourette Syndrome and the Workplace

People with TS share these concerns with everyone else in the workplace, but for their own special reasons. Although some people do suffer muscle pains, hoarseness or even injuries due to tics, TS is rarely “disabling” in the usual sense of the word. More often, it’s social attitudes about physical and vocal tics that make trouble, and work is one place this trouble tends to boil over.

Most employers still find accepting and accommodating wheelchair users and people with hearing impairments easier than understanding TS. Too many still think tics are “bad habits,” symptoms of nervousness, or deliberate behavior. The idiotic and insulting images of people with TS presented in the media don’t help. This means that your first hurdle is educating employers and coworkers.

Luckily, people with TS tend to have a couple of very positive attributes that can help: a sharp mind and a sense of humor. These will prove to be your most useful weapons in typical job-hunting and work situations.

If you’re in search of a job, finding a sympathetic employer can be as important as finding the right salary. Do your research before applying—it’s better to have a good fit from the start than to find yourself in an uncomfortable spot. Does the company have a written commitment to diversity on the workplace, including disability? If problems occur later, you’ll have a policy to refer to. Do its current employees find it a good place to work? If so, it’s likely that good management is in place instead of management through coercion or bullying. No one thrives in a bad workplace, but people whose tics kick off in a tense, up-tight atmosphere can find themselves stuck in an ever-narrowing cycle of increased symptoms and increased on-the-job problems. It’s better to just avoid it.

Accommodations in the Workplace

Top-notch job skills can give you a way to counteract any perceived negative impact from either your diagnosis or your actual symptoms. Those whose school experiences were something they’d rather forget, and those who attended “special” schools and didn’t get to gain skills that employers are looking for, should seek out companies that offer in-house training or continuing professional development programs. Sometimes these are a well-kept secret, so you may have to ask. They’re the sign of a firm that values its employees.

You might also contact your local vocational rehabilitation program. Although the word “rehabilitation” makes it sound like something for people who’ve been injured, VR programs are for all adults whose disabilities are keeping them out of the job market. What’s offered varies by state, but help may include assessment, resume and interview advice, paying for training, and practical help like specialized equipment. Some private firms can also give advice to job-seekers. The confidence you’ll gain can really be useful.

If you’re already employed, you want to stay that way and get ahead. It’s important to be considerate if others find things you do annoying or offensive. If you have concerns about how your tics are affecting your co-workers, be proactive: could you satisfy that urge in a more discreet way (tic substitution)? Could you arrange to have “tic breaks”, the way your smoking co-workers have cigarette breaks? Is there anything about the work environment that could be changed, either to remove a trigger for a tic or to prevent what you’re doing from bugging someone else? Some people choose to take more medication during the day, as long as it doesn’t impact job performance.

Sometimes you can make adjustments yourself, but others require help from your employer. If adding a cubicle divider in your open office would do the trick, talk to Human Resources or your supervisor. Be up front about the situation, and let them know you’re acting out of concern for your coworkers.

Verbal tics can be the most difficult to cope with, particularly if coprolalia is a factor. If your employer understands that tics wax and wane, this can be helpful—a temporary reassignment could get you through a “high volume” period. If a vocal tic has come to stay, however, it’s either permanent reassignment or acceptance that you need….and the latter is much more satisfying.

In most cases, you have the law on your side at work. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) bans disability discrimination in hiring and promotion, as well as prohibiting companies from treating you differently or firing you strictly because you have a TS diagnosis or tics. However, cases brought under this law by people with TS have so far been a mixed bag. If your coprolalia offends customers, for example, the employer probably can get away with firing you. You can counter that by asking to be transferred to a non-public-contact position, and by using strategies like the ones mentioned above to avoid giving offense.

People with TS have been highly successful in many lines of work, from driving a bus to making feature films to teaching. Those with the best career stories are not always those with “minor” tics—they are those with desirable job skills, and a strong sense of self, and a positive attitude.

Contributed to the Tourette Association by Mitzi Waltz