The SHS senior overcomes the devastating effects of Tourette Syndrome

by: GAZETTE PHOTO: BARBARA SHERMAN - Life is good now for Sherwood High School graduating senior Chris Kuiper (left) and his best friend, Ryan Ax, but they remember the tough times when Chris was bullied in elementary and middle school because he has Tourette Syndrome and Ryan was chastised for standing up for him.

When senior Chris Kuiper is awarded his diploma in Sherwood High School’s graduation ceremony, it also will mark his personal triumph over years of adversity that many other students probably would not have survived.

Chris was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome in the summer before the second grade, and he will be the first to admit that it made his life a living hell for many years afterwards, to the point where he thought about ending it.

Gilles de la Tourette Syndrome is a condition that causes a person to make repeated, quick movements or sounds that they cannot control, and these movements or sounds are called tics, according to the Tourette Syndrome Association.

When Chris was 15, he became a Tourette Syndrome Youth Ambassador from Oregon and wrote an essay about his life to that point, describing the highs and lows during his years at Middleton Elementary and Sherwood Middle School.

“My tics came in very fast and were very severe, which included bobbing my head up and down like a maniac, loud and disrupting vocal tics, and hand movements,” Chris wrote of the time when the symptoms really hit. “I would even drag one of my back legs and then hop straight up and down – I really could not control myself…

“I tried to be normal and fit in with my classmates, but my tics made kids cautious of me, like they were afraid that they were going to catch whatever I had. I had an increasingly hard time making new friends, and the ones I had already began to shy away. I was officially the ‘weird kid’ of my school.”

The situation got worse in third and fourth grade, with Chris noting that “the bullies in school had figured out that I was the easiest target in the school,” and the various medications he was put on caused side effects such as sleepiness, nausea and dizziness.

Finally, Chris tried a new medication that stopped the tics in two days, but by then he had developed obsessive/compulsive disorder, which caused him to become obsessed with repeating things in patterns such as tapping the wall a certain number of times when he walked down school hallways.

Chris could not have asked for more supportive parents than Jennifer and John but realized he had to become his own advocate.

“My worse year was sixth grade,” Chris wrote. “I was at the height of my tics stage, and the OCD and the anxiety had gotten worse. In addition, there were way more bullies after me, and they had reached new heights. I quit all the activities that I used to do such as swimming and Scouts.

“My parents enrolled me in Kenpo Karate to help give me more confidence and to defend myself. I remember in seventh grade when I received three death threats from various people. I would have my school work deliberately taken out of the classroom inbox by a student and thrown away.”by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Chris Kuiper stands in front of the U.S. Capitol with his mother in the spring of 2012, when he was selected to be  part of the Tourette Syndrome Association Youth Ambassador Program.

Finally, by eighth grade, the bullying had died down to just a few students; the tics, anxiety and the OCD were all subsiding; and Chris felt his classmates finally understood his condition. By Chris’ freshman year, the tics were almost gone, and he was only taking a fraction of his medication. The bullying had completely ceased, and he got involved in the leadership class where he made new friends.

“It was a long, long road for me to travel,” Chris wrote. “It was lonely, it was tough. I had been sidelined and forgotten… I learned the value of perseverance and how to succeed through failure… Not only have I dug myself out of the pit that Tourette Syndrome created, but I have built a mountain in its place.

“But personally, I’m glad that I have Tourette Syndrome. Although my Tourette Syndrome has put me through my hell a thousand times, it has also given me knowledge and wisdom that you can only get by having a condition that does put you through hell.”

Besides having a supportive family, the other constant pillar in Chris’ life has been Ryan Ax, who became his lifelong best friend in second grade.

In Ryan’s brag sheet for his profile for teachers, he wrote about the difficulty of being Chris’ friend at times, adding, “But I loved him, and it broke my heart to see him get bullied the way he did… Our friendship wasn’t easy, and because I chose to be friends with him, I was turned out of a lot of other social groups. But the fact that no one else could see the worth of this person, the value that lay past the superficial layer, made me hate the way our society functions.

And it made me want to change it.

“Through being in a close relationship with him, and my brother who has autism, I developed a love and affinity for people with special needs. And I realized I wanted to spread that to the rest of the world… Being friends with (Chris) for 10 years now has taught me to always look for the value in people, because if you take the time to look hard enough, you’ll always find something incredible… ”

Chris and Ryan sat down together recently to talk a little more about their friendship and how Chris has been doing since writing his essay three years ago.

Today, Chris is tic free and last took medication on a regular basis at the beginning of his freshman year. “Things calmed down by mid-year when I was a freshman,” he said. “Tics are highest during puberty. And by getting into leadership class, I was surrounded by high-achieving students.”

Both seniors remember “the incident” in the eighth grade that changed Chris’ life forever when he was bullied in a class by five or six boys who assaulted him and started pushing him into a corner.

“I was like a cornered dog,” Chris said. “I popped the guy in the nose, and the rest of them were coming after me, so I ran to the office.”

The only repercussion was that Chris and the other kids and their parents had to have a follow-up conference in the principal’s office, and afterwards, “Kids were coming up to me and saying, ‘Does Chris know karate?’” Ryan said. “And I said, ‘Yes, he’s a brown belt.’ I love that story. Chris did not have enough kids in his corner.”

Chris added, “That was the turning point. By the time of this incident, 60 percent of the class had accepted me, and after this incident, I was not harassed any longer. The other 40 percent started saying, ‘Hi, Chris, How are ya doing?’”

In addition to going all through school together, Chris and Ryan were both on the varsity swim team and participated in Camp Tillicum summer camp every year; in addition, Chris has run the light board for the SHS plays.

Starting next fall, the friends will go in opposite directions but not too far apart: Chris will attend Portland State University and plans to major in mechanical engineering and business, while Ryan will attend the University of Portland and major in business or political science.

“My goal after that is to attend the University of Washington or another good engineering school and get a master’s degree in aeronautical science,” Chris said, and Ryan added, “He will go from drawing planes to making them. That is so cool.”

As Chris participates in his graduation ceremony, he said, “Half of me will be glad (school’s) over, but the good times got me through. I persevered, and I am looking forward to college and studying more advanced topics.”

As for Ryan, he said it will be sad to say goodbye to people, but “I’m proud of what I’ve learned and the knowledge I’ve gotten, and I’m glad this guy will still be around. We’ll stay in touch.”

Finally, Chris’ mom Jennifer had this to say about her son: “There has not been a week that has gone by since Chris has been in high school that John and I have not been humbled and filled with gratitude by the efforts of his school and teachers. It was a long road. It was a tough road, and there were times early on when we did not know if Chris would make it or if our family would make it.

“But he did make it, our family made it, and now we have an amazing young man who is well-prepared to go after his dream of being an aeronautical engineer. Most importantly, we are so thankful that Ryan consciously chose to be Christopher’s friend when Chris had no one… It opened up Christopher’s life, and it opened up Ryan’s too, I think. They truly have each other’s backs.”

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