Miles is a 12-year-old boy with exceptional talent for piano and suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome (TS). At school, bullies harass him because of his tics. He prefers to spend his time at the local jazz club where Tyrone Park, a jazz saxophonist, asks him to join in, but Miles’ tics intensify and he is unable to play. Later, he impresses Tyrone with his talent. Miles and his mother, Laura, learn that Tyrone has TS as well and a romantic relationship develops between Laura and Tyrone. After a stressful encounter with his dad and a fight between Laura and Tyrone, Miles has a severe tic episode. He runs off with his mother’s gun intending to commit suicide, but is found by Tyrone who helps him work out his troubles.
The Tic Code gives a fairly realistic portrayal of Tourette’s Syndrome through the two main characters with Tourette’s Syndrome (TS). Young Miles has simple vocal and motor tics.
The real problem, for Miles, is social. Today, many children who do not experience functional interference from their tics do not take medication, unless Tourette’s-related social problems are severe enough to necessitate a reduction in tics (Gilbert, 2006). Miles experiences bullying due to his tics, particularly from one boy. The brunt of the negative reaction to Miles’ TS comes from his largely absent father,. Miles’ father expresses many examples of social stigma against mental illness – he questions Miles’ diagnosis and believes that Miles can outgrow it, he attempts to isolate Miles’ during one of his few visits out of the concern that he will attract attention, he avoids his ex-wife and son, and he makes statements to Miles and his mother that make it clear that he does not accept Miles’ syndrome. Miles believes that his father left because of his TS, and while this is never directly confirmed in the film, mental illness places many stressors on families and can create disruption in family dynamics (Hinshaw, 2005). Miles is frustrated by his tics, but mainly his frustration exists because of the reactions of others in response to his tics. His frustrations are associated with the bullying he experiences at school, his father’s rejection, and an altercation with a producer after the producer yells at him about his tics being a disruption. Miles has learned to live with his TS; his problems now stem from the related social stigma.
These social problems are likely a factor in his suicidal ideations throughout the film. While running away from a bully, he imagines himself standing in front of a moving truck. Later, he imagines shooting himself in the head. People with Tourette’s are at higher risk for depression, and social stigma and bullying are likely contributory factors. Other factors in comorbid depression in people with Tourette’s can include comorbidity with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Attention Deficity Hyperactivity Disorder (neither exhibited by Miles), family history of mood disorders (seemingly untrue for Miles’ family), side effects from medications (Miles does not consistently take medications), or functional disruption from severe Tourette’s symptoms (also not exhibited by Miles). Even among children without mental illness, bullying is a risk factor for depression, and the risk is even greater in a child with Tourette’s (Robertson, 2006). Furthermore, Miles is not the only character in the film displaying suicidal ideations – Tyrone also reports thoughts of suicide near the end of the film, after he talks Miles into abandoning his own suicide plan. Tyrone talks about feeling like his Tourette’s defines him and how he tries to combat that.
The name of the film, The Tic Code, likely refers to a scene when Tyrone tells the boy who bullies Miles that their tics are a secret language. Miles and Tyrone bond because of their shared love of jazz, but also because of their shared experiences with Tourette’s Syndrome and their ability to understand each other. For them, music and tics are intertwined – the medication that suppresses Miles’ tics also stops him from playing the piano – and the characters use their tic code to support each other.
Bartlett, P., Draper, P. (Producers) & Winick, G. (Director). (1999). The Tic Code [Motion picture]. United States: Lions Gate.
Gilbert, D. (2006). Treatment of children and adolescents with tics and Tourette Syndrome. Journal of Child Neurology, 21, 690-700.
Hinshaw, S. (2005). The stigmatization of mental illness in children and parents: developmental issues, family concerns, and research needs. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(7), 714-734.
Robertson, M. M. (2006). Mood disorders and Gilles de la Tourette's syndrome: an update on prevalence, etiology, comorbidity, clinical associations, and implications. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 61(3), 349-358.