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Children with Tourette syndrome show speech strengths

by on 2016/10/06

This week there has been an example of excellent reporting in the media about a study that looked at speech development in children with Tourette syndrome. The study compared children with Tourette syndrome and typically developing children on a word test where they had to sound out non-words (e.g. naichobave) and found that children with Tourette syndrome were faster at the task and no less accurate. What does this mean for understanding Tourette syndrome?

Firstly, Tourette syndrome is a neurological condition that is characterised by a combination of involuntary noises and movements called tics. The NHS have very clearly described the disorder on the NHS Choices website.  Indeed inclusion of information from the NHS website within the reporting is one of very positive examples we see within the reporting of this study. The Daily Mail included a separate box within their article to highlight this information which is to be commended.

The study was conducted by a multi-collaborative team led by Dr. Cristina Dye at the University of Newcastle. The researchers compared thirteen children with Tourette syndrome with 14 typically developing children on a non-word repetition task. This is known as a phonology test and requires the children to repeat strings of speech sounds that aren’t a real word but sound legitimate.  Although sample sizes were small, the researchers were able to show that the children with Tourette syndrome were quicker to produce the words and were still as accurate as the typically developing comparison group.

Importantly, the researchers were able to show that the findings could not be explained by a range of other important factors that could typically influence such results (such as IQ). The researchers interpreted these findings as reflecting some of the brain differences we see in Tourette syndrome. Typically such differences cause impairments but here they are associated with better performance.

Previous research that has examined both strengths as well as weaknesses in other disorders such as autism spectrum disorder have similarly found that the disorder is characterised by a series of strengths e.g. processing distractors and problem solving.  These findings are important to balance our understanding of the disorders and in the case of this recent Tourette syndrome finding there may be implications for the early diagnostic process.

The reporting was very positive in a number of ways. In the Daily Mail coverage for example, sensationalist headlines or claims were avoided. The reporter also clearly interviewed the researchers and used their quotes to highlight the important findings. There were some discrepancies such as reference to the test as new and that it involved turning sounds into actual words. Importantly though, the Daily Mail reporter explained the disorder in detail using NHS resources to aid their description and also cited the journal name so that interested readers could find out more about the study if they so wished. This is the exact type of reporting we like to see at Research the Headlines.

Reference: Dye, C.D., Walenski, M., Mostofsky, S.H., & Ullman, M.T. (2016). A verbal strength in children with Tourette syndrome? Evidence from a non-word repetition task. Brain and Language, 160, 61-70.


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