At night, after Tammy Hruskach tucks her boys in bed, she prays a mother’s prayer for constant protection and guidance — first for Logan, 9; and then for her 7-year-old, Austin.
“And God,” she always adds as she brushes the bangs off Austin’s forehead, her hand lingering in one last caress, “please cut this one a little slack.”
On Nov. 21, 2008, Austin was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, a baffling neurological disorder “characterized” by repetitive, involuntary movements (tics) and vocalizations.
Put into a mother’s words, Austin “moves and makes noises that he cannot stop making.” Although he is on medication to help ease the condition, Austin’s face often twitches. His eyes flutter. At times, his whole body “quivers” as if he’s gotten a chill or is wracked by hiccups. He grimaces and makes fire engine-like sounds or growls and barks. There is no cure for Tourette Syndrome, although some children eventually outgrow the disorder, and often symptoms wax and wane.
Stress and anxiety make the condition worse.
“Poor little buddy,” Austin’s mom says. “All day long, he’s always making a noise, always moving. By night, he’s exhausted.”
As soon as he was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome, Hruskach sent a letter explaining the situation to the parents of his first-grade classmates at Campbell Elementary School in Roosevelt Park.
“He’s probably going to go to school with these kids for the rest of his life,” she says. “I wanted them to know what he goes through. It’s not easy being Austin.”
School principal Nate Smith praised Austin’s teacher, Molly LeRoux, and the rest of the school for “modeling acceptance and making (Austin) a valuable part of the Campbell team.”
“We try not to draw attention to Austin or make him self-conscious,” Smith says. “We want to honor him … to let him be who he is.”
Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you Austin is a child who loves to run, play soccer, ride his bike and play on a trampoline in the backyard with his brother and friends. With just a cast-off cardboard box and a few tools, he can come up with “at least” 10 creations.
Smith describes Austin as “the whole package for a first-grader.”
“I have nothing but great things to say about him,” he says.
In a sense, Tourette Syndrome is a victim of bad press. If people know anything about the disorder at all, they often know only this: Sometimes people with Tourette Syndrome involuntarily use inappropriate language. But that is an extremely rare side effect, according to the National Tourette Syndrome Association.
“People say, oh, he’s going to swear. No, he’s not. He doesn’t do that,” Hruskach says.
“I didn’t know what I was up against at first, and my son was diagnosed with Tourette’s,” Hruskach says. “I told Mr. Smith I needed another mom to talk to, someone who could help me know what to expect.”
She found a support group in Grand Rapids. She has since become its co-leader — and she’s making it her mission to spread the word about the disorder by talking about her son.
“What do I want people to know?” she asks. “He is a good kid, a great kid. Please don’t judge Austin because he’s different.”
Austin has been under the care of DeVos Children’s Hospital Pediatric Neurology Clinic for almost two years. Besides Tourette Syndrome, Austin has been diagnosed with several “sister” disorders — attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Sometimes it makes daily living a challenge — for mother and son. For a year, Austin refused to wear any striped clothing. He will not eat any food if it “touches” other food, so his mom has to serve his meals in separate bowls or plates.
“I pray a lot,” she jokes.
Divorced, Tammy Hruskach, 30, shares joint custody of the boys with her ex-husband, Jason Hruskach. On a night when Logan is headed to softball practice, and Austin has soccer at the same time, the boys’ parents and stepmother, Molly Hruskach, divide up carpool and bleacher duty.
“Have you met Austin yet? He’s a great kid,” Jason Hruskach asks.
And that is why Tammy Hruskach wrote the letter to his classmates’ parents and why she tells Austin’s story. Austin doesn’t talk much, so she does it for him. She does it, she says, to “lift the burden”
“When I was growing up, kids were mean. They could be cruel and so judgmental,” she says, and for the second time in two hours, she excuses herself to wipe away tears.
“I just want to say to people: You should never judge a child. I want them to know my son is just as important as their children.”
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