Courtesy of Tara Lerman
- Elon Musk once took to Twitter to tell a former employee she had a “tragic case of Tourette’s.”
- His reply perpetuated misinformation and stereotypes that exist about the condition.
- Using Tourette’s as a comedic trope is harmful for people like Tara Lerman, who lives with it every day.
As one of the 1.4 million people in the US who experience a persistent tic disorder, I frequently hear jokes about Tourette’s that perpetuate harmful stereotypes.
Tourette’s syndrome is a condition of the nervous system that causes people to have tics — sudden twitches, movements, or sounds that they make repeatedly. For me, those tics might show up as vocal repetitions, lip clicking, head and neck jerking, and more.
In November, Sasha Solomon was working as a software engineer at Twitter. After she used the platform to call out Elon Musk’s initial round of staff layoffs, he fired her. She responded with a strongly worded tweet voicing her frustration.
Sasha Solomon was working as a software engineer at Twitter when she tweeted dismay at Musk over Twitter layoffs. When she again fired back on Twitter, he responded by referring to her as “a tragic case of adult onset Tourette’s.”
Courtesy of @Sachee/Twitter
He responded by referring to her as “a tragic case of adult onset Tourette’s.”
“The intention behind Musk’s tweet is more significant the words he chose — he thought he could use my disability as an emotional weapon,” says Lerman.
Courtesy of @ElonMusk/Twitter
While Musk’s intention might have been to insult Solomon, he managed to offend an entire community of people instead — people who already carry the burden of living with tics they can’t control. A public and influential figure with more than 120M followers, Musk has an opportunity to raise awareness and debunk stereotypes. Instead, he chose to use his platform to make a joke about a disability that isn’t funny for those of us who live with it.
The danger in Musk’s tweet has less to do with the words he used and more to do with the intention behind them. He felt he could use my disability as a weapon for emotional injury, and he expected Solomon to be offended.
Tourette’s syndrome is more than swearing
I often try to suppress my tics in public spaces or unfamiliar settings to avoid judgement from strangers. For instance, I might hold in tics when working from an open office, at a coffee shop, or on calls with colleagues and clients. But the mental and physical energy required to suppress can take a lot out of me — which is especially intrusive when I’m trying to meet a deadline or edit a piece of content (I work in journalism).
When I finally release my tics after suppressing them for a period of time, they pour out all at once, which is distracting and time-consuming. It takes longer for me to do things many people take for granted — reading, responding to emails, and even getting dressed.
For Musk to imply that someone has Tourette’s just because they’ve tweeted out a few swear words shows he doesn’t understand my condition at all.
To be fair, neither do most people. While uttering curse words or making vulgar gestures are behaviors most often associated with Tourette’s syndrome, they’re actually the least common among those of us who have this disorder. Coprolalia, the medical term that describes involuntary outbursts of obscenities, only impacts an estimated 10% of people with Tourette’s.
My Tourette’s is not tragic and makes me a better employee
Tourette’s is not tragic, but the stigma around it is. I live a productive and full life, not in spite of my disability but because of it. Sure, I have bad days or even bad months, but if I had the choice to trade in my neurodivergent life for a neurotypical one, I wouldn’t.
My Tourette’s syndrome allows me to exhibit empathy at work, because I understand that while people may seem fine on the outside, they’re likely navigating their own challenges. It empowers me to remain calm in the face of chaos and uncertainty, because I’ve lived my life in a body that I can’t control. It also allows me to be creative and detail-oriented, because I notice things that other people don’t.
I want to be proud of my disability, but that’s not easy in a world where people associate my lived experience with common tropes they see in the media. So, no, Elon Musk, Tourette’s syndrome is not a joke — and it’s too complex to fit into the confines of a 280-character tweet. Next time you use my disability to insult someone, I suggest you do your research first.