Jerry Di, a student at St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill, Ont., has developed a web-based program, Unitic, that helps treat Tourette Syndrome free of charge. By inputting the location of a motor or vocal tic, it matches up with a therapy plan. Photo courtesy Unitic

St. Robert student creates app to treat Tourette’s

  • September 29, 2021

Jerry Di knows what it’s like to live with Tourette Syndrome.

Di was bullied in elementary school for symptoms which included excessive blinking and uncontrollable vocal tics. He began experiencing Tourette symptoms at around age four and was officially diagnosed at roughly age seven. His symptoms hit a peak in severity as he entered adolescence.

Through professional treatment, Di has been able to overcome Tourette Syndrome symptoms. His goal now is to make sure every young person has access to the same.

The 16-year-old student at St. Robert Catholic High School in Thornhill, Ont., north of Toronto, has developed a web-based program called Unitic that provides accessible treatment for the condition to anyone with access to the Internet. The platform involves inputting the location of specific motor or vocal tics after which an algorithm scans, processes and matches the information with a database to find the ideal therapy plan. Users will be able to access the behavioural therapy through a user dashboard, all offered free of charge.

“The goal is to treat as many people with Tourette Syndrome as possible,” said the Grade 11 student. “To make sure that eventually the condition won’t be that big of a deal anymore.”

Di, along with friend and co-founder Philip Lu, a software engineering student at the University of Waterloo, continue to work with a team of developers to refine and perfect the program. In addition to diagnostics and treatment recommendations, the system will provide additional resources such as information to facilitate a healthy social life and resources for parents and guardians of the patient.

Medical treatment options are not currently worked into the program but Di and his team are looking towards including these in the future.

While there is no known cure for Tourette syndrome, it can be effectively treated through Cognitive Behavioural Interventions for Tics (CBIT) among other treatment options. While a diagnostic appointment with a physician is covered by the provincial health plan, therapies such as CBIT — which are generally administered by non-medical professionals — are not.

With a strong support system of family and friends, Di was able to gain access to CBIT and began to be treated by medication at around 11 or 12 years old. Today Di’s tics are no longer noticeable.

Once he reached high school, he started to think about people who perhaps don’t have the same access to supports or treatment, which led to the development of Unitic.

The moment that inspired Di the most, he says, was meeting another young person with  Tourette Syndrome. Their symptoms were more severe than his were at their peak, he recalls, and Di was shocked to learn the person had never received any treatment due to financial limitations.

“I just felt really bad because at that point my condition was basically cured already and this other person was still suffering through all of it and would probably continue suffering without support,” said Di. “That’s why I thought we really need to do something as quickly as possible.”

Di says his Catholic school experience has provided him with many of the guiding values and morals he holds today. He’s passionate about helping people and is inspired by the possibility of helping infinite numbers of people the world over who suffer from the condition.

St. Robert vice principal Jennifer Kwong is excited about the work of Di and other students who aim to make an impact on the global community.

“As a Catholic learning community at St. Robert CHS, we encourage and are inspired by our students who strive to make the world a better place,” said Kwong. “We are truly impressed by Jerry’s accomplishments in supporting individuals with Tourette’s Syndrome. We are looking forward to seeing the end product.”

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