True Idol

When James Durbin won over audiences on American Idol, he brought needed attention to two serious syndromes: Asperger’s and Tourette’s.

©Michael Becker/FOX

James Durbin isn’t your run-of-the-mill rock star. On season 10 of American Idol, he wowed the crowds and lit up the phone lines with everything from the Beatles to Aerosmith, from Elton John to Muddy Waters. And although he was eliminated in the semifinals, he came home to a hero’s welcome in Santa Cruz, California, where more than 30,000 fans turned out to greet him. It was the first time a fourth-place finisher on Idol was honored with a parade.

When James, 22, belted out Paul McCartney’s classic “Maybe I’m Amazed” on Idol, he sang from the bottom of his heart. After all, nobody was more amazed than he was. As a kid who grew up with Asperger’s and Tourette syndromes, James really was surprised to have come so far. That’s because both of those medical conditions make it extremely challenging to be a public figure. On top of that, while he was growing up, many of his peers—and one teacher—disparaged him because of these syndromes.

Tough Growing Up

“Everyone around me growing up saw me as weird or an outcast,” James says. “They’d ask, ‘Why are you making those faces?’ And one of my teachers in high school told me that I wasn’t going to amount to anything.”

On Idol, James proved that teacher—and the kids who teased him—wrong. During performances for the show, the symptoms of his Asperger’s and Tourette’s would disappear. “Whatever I’m feeling, I can put it into a guitar or a microphone and put it on stage and escape to another world,” James says.

Like James, kids who have Asperger’s or Tourette’s have interests, dreams, and goals. They want to be social. Unfortunately, it’s often hard for them to make friends. Maybe some kids in your school or neighborhood have Tourette’s or Asperger’s. Here are explanations of each of those conditions.

Asperger’s is a mild form of a condition called autism. “It’s another way of thinking,” explains Walter Kaweski, author of Teaching Adolescents With Autism. “It’s a neurological disorder—the way the brain is wired is just a little different for these kids.

They’re as smart as other kids, but they face these three big challenges:

It’s hard to make friends. For kids with Asperger’s, it’s difficult to share in other kids’ interests or respond to their emotions. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just that their Asperger’s prevents them from doing so.

It’s hard to communicate. Kids with Asperger’s have a hard time tuning in to body language, like shrugged shoulders or raised eyebrows. Also, they may not understand figures of speech, like “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Here’s an example. Say a classmate does the following to a kid with Asperger’s: He rolls his eyes, then says, “Nice shirt.” The kid who has Asperger’s may think his classmate is giving him a compliment.

It’s hard not to get stuck on favorite topics. Often a person with Asperger’s will get focused on topics that he or she really likes, and have difficulty talking about other things. So while you and your friends may be chatting about the soccer game you just played, your friend with Asperger’s may talk only about Harry Potter, or meteorites, or cars.

Like Asperger’s, Tourette Syndrome (TS) starts in the brain’s wiring. It causes people to have tics—movements like shaking their head or other sounds like loud squeaks or noises. “People are born with Tourette’s,” says Judit Ungar, president of the Tourette Syndrome Association. “They wouldn’t choose to have their tics, and they can’t stop themselves from having them.”

Here are answers to three common questions about Tourette’s:

How do you get Tourette’s? Scientists think that it is an inherited condition, and boys are three times more likely to be affected than girls. Usually, symptoms of TS begin in early elementary school and become more severe during the teenage years.

What kinds of tics do people with TS have? Tics can range from simple forms—repeated eye-blinking, shrugging, sniffing, or grunting—to complex combinations like grimacing and head-twisting. Only about 5 percent of people with TS experience coprolalia—involuntary use of inappropriate language, such as curses and ethnic slurs. The one thing that all TS tics have in common: They are impossible to control.

Are there any treatments for TS? Sometimes, medicine helps people suppress their tics or makes the tics less severe. And counseling can help some people with TS cope with the problems they face. But the most effective treatment seems to be doing something fun. “People do their tics when they’re under stress,” says Brad Cohen, a second-grade teacher and author of Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had. “When they’re concentrating on what they like to do, kids find that their tics often disappear.”

Which brings us back to James Durbin. Auditioning for season 10 of Idol was daunting for him, especially because he had tried three years earlier and was rejected. But James never gave up, and he followed his dream of performing. Now he has legions of fans, many of whom are afflicted with Asperger’s or Tourette’s. These fans have reached out to James.

“I get lots of letters, e-mails, Facebook messages, and tweets from them,” he says. “It’s been great and humbling. It feels good that I’m not only living my dream, but I’m also inspiring people. It feels good to be a voice for kids and young adults who are too scared to speak up about Asperger’s or Tourette’s.”

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