Chatham student advises former teachers about Tourette Syndrome
CHATHAM – Sarah Ethridge, a sophomore at Chatham High School, can command a room and communicate whatever message is on her mind to an audience of all ages. Even when she was in fourth and fifth grade, shortly after being diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, Sarah had the desire to speak to anyone who would listen about her condition.
But 4 to 6 years of growth and maturity makes a big difference – especially when the age difference is 8, 9 or 10 and 14 – and Sarah is far more confident now in her ability to articulate what it’s like to struggle with TS, a misdiagnosed, misunderstood, inherited neurological disorder that affects 1 in 100 children and teenagers just like Sarah.
On September 24, Sarah addressed a gathering of nearly 60 teachers at Lafayette Elementary School as part of the New Jersey Center for Tourette Syndrome & Associated Disorders’ (NJCTS) Student-Led In-Service Program. She talked to them about her life with Tourette and how they, as educators, can help students just like her excel and succeed despite the condition. After all, it was just a few years ago that Sarah was a student at Lafayette – a fact not lost on at least three of the teachers in attendance.
“In fourth grade, her tics were not that outstanding where all the kids were wondering what was going on, and the tics might have been masked by all the noise and activity going on in the classroom,” said Christine Grobert, Sarah’s fourth-grade teacher at Lafayette. “I'm so happy for her that she feels comfortable in her situation now to share her story with other kids and adults. Even myself, the small things she had going on – refraining from ticcing during an exercise – as an educator, it's amazing to see how she is able to get through a class. Now I realize what she was going through.”
Sarah’s situation became a bit more complicated in fifth grade, but thanks to the help of Elizabeth Adams and Jim Donough, her fifth-grade teachers, Sarah not only survived the grade – she thrived.
“A girl had been giving Sarah a hard time and looking at her funny, and it was then that her mom decided it was time to come in and have Sarah talk to the students,” Adams said. “After that presentation, there were very few problems. And she was an outstanding student, too. Everything she did was 200 percent.”
Donough particularly points to that presentation as a turning point in Sarah’s development, adding that, “From that point forward, it disappeared. Everyone said, ‘That's OK’ about her TS. The more information you have, the more you understand.”
The final words of Sarah’s presentation – “Be understanding. Talk to your students. Spread the word to other teachers and students so that everyone has an understanding of what Tourette Syndrome is and what it isn't.” – resonated loud and clear with Donough.
“Her presentation today reminded me of the constant need to be aware, be sensitive and have that dialogue,” he said. “I don't think we have had anyone else since Sarah with Tourette. But if we do get one, we will be prepared to be sensitive and have a dialogue with the student and the parents.”