Last week, 22-year-old James Durbin wowed the audience—as well as viewers all across the country—as his amazing voice and incredible performing style helped catapult him to the next round on the popular television program “American Idol.” Now among only seven finalists in the competition, Durbin seems unstoppable. Yet success has not come easily to this young Californian, who copes with the twin diagnoses of Asperger’s and Tourette’s disorders. Since his appearance on “American Idol,” Durbin has been very open about the effect of these two conditions on his life and his musical career.
Although awareness of Asperger’s disorder (a high-functioning form of autism) has grown in recent years, Tourette’s is less well known. According to the National Institutes of Health, Tourette’s is a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics. The early symptoms are almost always noticed first in childhood, with the average onset between the ages of 7 and 10 years. Tourette’s occurs in people from all ethnic groups; males are affected about three to four times more often than females. It is estimated that 200,000 Americans have the most severe form, and as many as one in 100 exhibit milder and less complex symptoms such as chronic motor or vocal tics or transient tics of childhood. Although Tourette’s can be a chronic condition with symptoms lasting a lifetime, most people with the condition experience their worst symptoms in their early teens, with improvement occurring in the late teens and continuing into adulthood.
Durbin’s positive attitude and his success as a performer have made him a hero for many children with Tourette’s disorder. Durbin says that he loves hearing that people are inspired by his history of overcoming adversity. “It fuels me to do better and to push myself even further,” he told USA Today in a March 8 interview.
In the past, television and movies have often highlighted Coprolalia, a form of Tourette’s disorder in which patients curse or spit out racial epithets uncontrollably. In reality, only about ten percent of patients have this severe form of Tourette’s. With the media attention generated by performers like Durbin, some common misconceptions can be dispelled, and the public can see a person with Tourette’s who is talented, successful, and popular. Durbin summed it up on a recent episode of “American Idol” when he said, “I have Tourette’s and Asperger’s, but Tourette’s and Asperger’s don’t have me.”