Getting Comfortable with Tourette’s

Where Rex Saw Only Tics, NSA Saw a Technical Leader

July 14, 2022

For the first 10 or 15 years of Rex M.’s career at NSA, he tried to suppress and minimize his tics, including blinking and winking his eyes, shrugging his shoulders and clearing his throat.

Diagnosed at age 8 with Tourette Syndrome, a nervous system disorder that can cause unwanted movement and vocalizations, Rex didn’t want to talk about having Tourette’s, out of embarrassment. But that’s no longer the case. At a recent NSALive event focused on how the agency supports people with disabilities, Rex shared how NSA helped him reframe his self-perception, giving him the confidence to grow personally and professionally.

“NSA made me more comfortable in my own skin.” – Meet Rex M., Technical Lead

Rex, who began his NSA career in computer network security, reached a turning point when he was offered a promotion. He would switch from strictly technical work, where he spent most of his time sitting in front of a keyboard and screen, to becoming a technical leader, where he’d have more interaction with people. Having noticed that in stressful situations, the tics got worse, Rex wondered if he was cut out for the job. The transition to a leadership role meant, as he joked, “more meetings, more people, more opportunities to twitch or grunt or make other people uncomfortable.”

Step 1 was sharing the fact that he has Tourette Syndrome with his closest work friends.

“People genuinely appreciated the conversation,” he said. “Everyone I talked to was supportive and understanding.”

Step 2 was seeking help from the agency’s employee assistance program, where a counselor helped Rex realize the disconnect between how Rex saw himself versus how others perceived him.

“I saw myself as the tics, the Tourette’s. In other people’s eyes, though, they saw technical competence and leadership qualities.”

The third experience – an anonymous performance review from peers and other employees who are more junior and more senior to Rex – didn’t so much as mention the tics. In fact, in the strengths column, reviewers listed two traits Rex himself attributes to living with Tourette's – resilience to adversity and the ability to deescalate conflict. The latter, he explained, was a way to avoid being teased.

The last step came through his involvement in NSA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program, specifically in reading “The Power of Disability: 10 Lessons for Surviving, Thriving, and Changing the World.”

“I was inspired by the stories of people living their best life, having celebrated careers alongside their disabilities.”

NSA’s culture, he said, truly values empathy, equity and inclusion.

“When I think back to all these experiences, my time here at the agency hasn’t just been fulfilling work, but it’s changed how I see myself for the better.”

So, the person who was unsure that he belonged in leadership circles is now the technical director of a large organization within NSA. He’s also on a senior steering group for the director of NSA’s Big Six initiative for diversity, equity and inclusion. And where Rex used to find the potential for interaction with senior leaders intimidating, he’s gotten over it. In fact, part of his role on the steering group is to ensure senior leader accountability.

He’s learned that “In this agency we look out for each other. We help each other. It’s in the culture.” He also noticed that as his skills and confidence increased, his tics decreased.

Rex closed his NSALive virtual presentation with some final thoughts and an invitation for people with disabilities to apply at NSA.

“I want you to know that people have judged me here for my skills and my impact – and the occasional goofs – but absolutely not for the Tourette’s,” he said. “People and resources here at this agency, they’ve made me more confident, more skilled and more comfortable in my own skin than before I started working here.”

“That’s my story,” he said. “Consider working for us. Your story could be even better.”

NSA has been recognized as a leader in employing, supporting and retaining people with disabilities, offering resources such as reasonable accommodations, assistive technologies and the People with Disabilities Employee Resource Group. Learn more about our career opportunities and outstanding benefits – you could be a part of an agency that’s dedicated to making a difference.