Suffolk teen raises Tourette’s awareness

Published 9:58 pm Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Suffolk high school student is shining a light on her medical condition after years of being misunderstood by educators and other professionals.

Tara Grady is a 17-year-old junior at Nansemond River High School with an extensive list of extracurricular activities both in and out of school. She also has Tourette Syndrome, and one of her activities is to educate others about the many misunderstandings of the condition.

Tara grew up in Suffolk’s Harbour View area with her parents. Phyllis Grady, her mother, said she began noticing her symptoms when she was very young.

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But like many, she did not first recognize them for what they truly were.

Tara Grady, a 17-year-old junior at Nansemond River High School, was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at age 15. She now raises awareness about her condition for others like her that are misunderstood daily.

“Most people don’t really know what it is,” Phyllis said.

Tourette’s is an inherited neurological disorder that manifests in a variety of tics that are unique to everyone. Some have coprolalia — the involuntary utterance of obscenities — but this widely known symptom represents a small percentage of those with the condition.

The majority have involuntary and repetitive motor tics. Tara has involuntarily moved her jaw in a chewing motion, clapped her hands or swung her arms for years. As she was growing up, her teachers would assume that she was eating food in class or otherwise fail to recognize the symptoms.

“I was so embarrassed of it when it first started that I tried to hide it,” Tara said.

That a person with Tourette’s should be able to stop their tics is another common misconception. These tics can be suppressed for some time, but doing so becomes exhausting.

It was an unnecessary burden for Tara to have to hide her tics from both her peers and her teachers.

“They don’t realize that she’s got all of that going on at the same time, while trying to hide so the other kids don’t see it,” Phyllis said.

She was diagnosed correctly by a neurologist at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk at age 15. She now takes medication to help manage her condition while working with specialists for cognitive behavioral therapy.

“I’m not hiding it anymore,” Tara said.

All of her energy and free time now keeps her productive. Tara is a Girl Scout Ambassador, and a member of the National Honor Society, the NRHS Beta Club and the golf team.  She was also selected for the Project Lead the Way program.

She has been a member of the school’s robotics club for three years, a fascination instilled by her father Chuck, a project designer for Lockheed Martin in Suffolk. Dawn Rountree, the engineering teacher, was the first teacher Tara told about her condition.

“She tried to get me to stop hiding it, and she saw a difference in my work,” Tara said.

Her classmates in the club treat one another like family and helped her be comfortable with her tics. She said that anytime she would involuntarily clap, for instance, they would clap with her as a show of support.

“They made me feel like I wasn’t alone,” she said.

Tara has also conducted presentations for PTA events at Northern Shores Elementary and John Yeates Middle schools, where she attended growing up. She wants to raise awareness about Tourette Syndrome to help others like her.

“Since I’ve had difficulty with teachers who didn’t understand what it was, I wanted to help other kids with similar difficulties,” she said.

Tara also recently crafted an educational display that will hang in the North Suffolk Library through June, giving 10 facts about Tourette Syndrome and showing photos of celebrities who have Tourette Syndrome.

She wants to enroll at Virginia Commonwealth University after she graduates high school to study clinical laboratory sciences. It’s her way of paying it forward.

“I want to help diagnose other diseases,” she said.