Jackson Houtman has been volunteering at an animal shelter and wouldn’t mind having a pet of his own someday. He’s also been trying to convince his mom to enroll him in karate class.
But what would really make Jackson happy right now, says Tammy Houtman, is if his Grandville Middle School classmates knew more about what it is like for him to live with Tourette Syndrome: How holding in his tics all day — involuntary movements and noises that are a symptom of the genetic neurological condition –makes his neck and shoulders ache so much he has to see a chiropractor. How being “painfully shy” already, said his mom, makes it hard for him to initiate friendships. How isolating it can be to feel like everyone is looking at you when you do things you can’t control.
“He feels like he is the only one here who has Tourette’s,” Tammy Houtman said. “Last year he ate by himself in the library. I worked in a school before. To see kids sitting alone is just heartbreaking.”
In fact, Jackson is not the only student at Grandville Middle with Tourette’s. So school leaders were more than willing to say yes when his mother suggested they show a short documentary to students featuring kids their age with the condition.
“We do talks like this for students who have other issues, so why not Tourette’s?” said guidance counselor Roxanne McCarron. “The more we educate the kids, the more understanding they are of others who are different. And the more they understand that every person in this building has sad things and hard things they deal with every day.”
The 27-minute documentary, titled “I Have Tourette’s But Tourette’s Doesn’t Have Me,” features children who live with the condition, who explain what it is, and some of the behaviors and treatments.
“The worst thing is that you sometimes can’t make friends,” one boy tells the camera. “It makes me feel different. And that’s hard when it’s all about fitting in.”
‘He Shouldn’t Feel Alone’
The middle school auditorium was silent when the lights came back up. In the last row, eighth-graders Heaven Langston and Maddy Wolf had barely taken their eyes off the screen.
“This was meaningful for me, because when I grow up I want to be a special ed teacher, and it doesn’t bother me, being around people who are different,” Maddy said.
She hadn’t yet met Jackson, but “I think he shouldn’t have a hard time because of Tourette’s,” Maddy said. “He shouldn’t feel alone. We’re all part of this school.”