Child Psychiatry Consult

Tourette syndrome: Diagnosis is key for best care


Tourette syndrome, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) share significant overlap in symptomatology, and it can be challenging at times to distinguish between these conditions. Being able to do so, however, can help guide more targeted interventions and accommodations to optimize a patient’s level of functioning.

Dr. Amelia B. Roth is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Eugene, Ore. Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU)

Dr. Amelia B. Roth

Case example

A healthy, bright 6-year-old boy is referred by his family doctor to an academic medical center for a full team evaluation because of suspicion of ASD, after having already been diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 5. His difficulties with inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, as well as his behavioral rigidities and sensory avoidant and sensory seeking behaviors have caused functional impairments for him in his kindergarten classroom. He has been penalized with removal of recess on more than one occasion. A low dose of a stimulant had been tried but resulted in a perceived increase in disruptive behaviors.

The boy, while hyperkinetic and often paying poor attention, is quite capable of high-quality and well-modulated eye contact paired with typical social referencing and reciprocity when actively engaging with the examiner and his parents. He does have a reported history of serial fixated interests and some repetitive behaviors but is also noted to be flexible in his interpersonal style, maintains other varied and typical interests, easily directs affect, utilizes a wide array of fluid gestures paired naturally with verbal communication, and shares enjoyment with smoothly coordinated gaze. He has mild articulation errors but uses pronouns appropriately and has no scripted speech or echolalia, though does engage in some whispered palilalia intermittently.

He is generally quite cooperative and redirectable when focused and has a completely normal physical and neurologic examination. During the visit, the doctor notices the boy making an intermittent honking sound, which parents report as an attention-seeking strategy during times of stress. Further physician-guided information gathering around other repetitive noises and movements elicits a history of engagement in repetitive hand-to-groin movements, some exaggerated blinking, and a number of other waxing and waning subtle motor and phonic tics with onset in preschool. These noises and movements have generally been identified as “fidgeting” and “misbehaving” by well-meaning caregivers in the home and school environments.

Both Tourette syndrome and ASD are more common in males, with stereotyped patterns of movements and behaviors; anxious, obsessive, and compulsive behaviors resulting in behavioral rigidities; sensory sensitivities; and increased rates of hyperkinesis with decreased impulse control which result in increased sensory-seeking behaviors. Diagnostic criteria for Tourette syndrome are met when a child has had multiple motor tics and at least one phonic tic present for at least 1 year, with tic-free intervals lasting no longer than 3 months, and with onset before the age of 18. Typically, tics emerge in late preschool and early grade school, and some children even develop repetitive movements as early as toddlerhood. Tics tend to worsen around the peripubertal era, then often generally improve in the teen years. Tic types, frequency, and severity general fluctuate over time.

Forty percent of children with Tourette syndrome also meet criteria for OCD, with many more having OCD traits, and about 65% of children with Tourette syndrome also meet criteria for ADHD, with many more having ADHD traits. OCD can lead to more rigid and directive social interactions in children as well as obsessive interests, just as ADHD can lead to less socially attuned and less cooperative behaviors, even in children who do not meet criteria for ASD.

For example, a child with OCD in the absence of ASD may still “police” other kids in class and be overly focused on the rules of a game, which may become a social liability. Likewise, a child with ADHD in the absence of ASD may be so distractible that focusing on what other kids are saying and their paired facial expressions is compromised, leading to poor-quality social reciprocity during interactions with peers. Given the remarkable overlap in shared symptoms, it is essential for pediatric providers to consider Tourette syndrome in the differential for any child with repetitive movements and behaviors in addition to ASD and a wide array of other neurodevelopment differences, including global developmental delays and intellectual disabilities. This is of particular importance as the diagnosis of Tourette syndrome can be used to gain access to developmental disability services if the condition has resulted in true adaptive impairments.

It is determined that the boy does in fact meet criteria for ADHD, but also for OCD and Tourette syndrome. Both his Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule and DSM-5–influenced autism interview are found to be in the nonclinical ranges, given his quality of communication, social engagement, imaginative play, and varied interests. A diagnosis of ASD is not felt to be an appropriate conceptualization of his neurodevelopmental differences. He is started on a low dose of guanfacine, which induces a decline in tics, impulsivity, and hyperkinesis. He is given a 504 plan in school that includes scheduled “tic breaks,” sensory fidgets for use in the classroom, extra movement opportunities as needed, and utilization of a gentle cueing system between him and his teacher for low-key redirection of disruptive behaviors. He is no longer penalized for inattention or tics, and his 504 plan protects him from the use of recess removal as a behavioral modification strategy.

His parents enroll him in the community swim program for extra exercise, focus on decreasing screen time, and give him an earlier bedtime to help decrease his tics and rigidities, while improving his ability to self-regulate. Eventually, a low dose of a newer-generation stimulant is added to his guanfacine, with excellent results and only a mild increase in tolerable tics.

The child in the vignette did well with a 504 plan based on his medical diagnoses, though if related learning difficulties had persisted, eligibility under Other Health Impaired could be used to provide eligibility for an Individualized Education Plan. Alpha-agonists can be helpful for symptom control in those with Tourette syndrome by simultaneously treating tics, hyperkinesis, and impulsivity, while decreasing the risk of tic exacerbation with use of stimulants. Overall, understanding the neurodiversity related to Tourette syndrome can help providers advocate for home and community-based supports to optimize general functioning and quality of life.

Dr. Roth is a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Eugene, Ore. She has no conflicts of interest.


Darrow S et al. J Am Acad Child Adolescent Psych. 2017;56(7):610-7.

AAP Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Voigt RG et al, eds. 2018: American Academy of Pediatrics.

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