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What Teens Taught Me About Inclusion

Read this story in The Ruderman Family Foundation Blog.

On a Friday night a little while ago, my wife and I attended a BBYO (Jewish youth organization) Shabbat dinner event for our older son. The host family set up chairs outside for the teens and parents, and invited a prominent outside speaker.

One of the boys—I’ll refer to him as Gabe—suffers from Tourette’s, defined as a psychiatric syndrome with involuntary physical and verbal tics. We tend to think of Tourette’s as blurting out seemingly random and obscene words, but only a small percentage of people with Tourette’s engage in these phonic utterances. Gabe was one of the small percentage of people with that variety of the tic disorder.

On a previous occasion, we hosted a sleepover of my son’s BBYO chapter. Gabe came up to me early in the evening, introduced himself, and explained that he had Tourette’s and may blurt out inappropriate words that he doesn’t mean. I knew of Tourette’s, but was glad he had the confidence and maturity to let me know. I didn’t hear him all night.

But last Friday night Gabe’s verbal tics were in rare form. He constantly blurted out loud, sometimes seemingly insulting remarks. He was desperately trying to rein it in, but could do nothing. I looked around. None of the teens were laughing or mocking him. They just continued to listen intently to the speaker.

When the presenter spoke of the more than 50 years of dysfunctional ties between the U.S. and Cuba, Gabe blurted out “bulls$$t, bulls$$t!”

“That’s right,” laughed the speaker. Everyone, including Gabe, laughed along with him.

While some of Gabe’s utterances seemed disconnected, many others revealed a deeply intelligent and keen mind. During the question and answer session, Gabe asked a highly sophisticated question that you might expect from an adult immersed in the subject matter, with no trace of tics.

Like my son, I was in BBYO. I tried to imagine if Gabe could have participated during my time in the youth group. I doubted it. I suspect in those days Gabe would have been discouraged from participating from his parents, and would have lacked the encouraging support system. I suspect that the other teens would have ridiculed him.

About ten years ago, I was a staffer at an event when a man with severe Tourette’s, I later learned, stood up in the middle of the event and began involuntarily twirling around the room. People didn’t know what to do or think. Some were undoubtedly scared. The man eventually left the room.

A few months later, I was at the organization’s grand banquet with hundreds of people. Suddenly, in the middle of a major panel discussion, I saw the same gentleman stand up and begin twirling around the room. People were visibly uncomfortable. Remembering the last go around, I calmly walked up to the gentleman and tried to escort him out of the room. I was worried that security would think he’s a threat.

I later learned that one of the prominent leaders of the organization was upset with me for not knowing this gentleman was in the room. His wife was terrified, I was told.

This last Friday evening, I looked at all those teen boys, who sat side by side with their friend Gabe as he blurted out his remarks. I felt proud of their tolerance and humanity. They taught a valuable lesson to their parents.

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