Jacob Barnett, a 12-year-old boy from Hamilton County, Indiana, has caught the attention of researchers from some of the most prestigious universities in the country with his challenge to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Jacob grasps some of the most complex concepts in mathematics and physics. Instead of junior high school, he attends Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), where there is a movement to get him on board as a paid research assistant. Recently, he created a YouTube video in which he explains his work, using markers on the windows of his home to show the mathematical calculations behind some of his ideas. Not bad for a boy who didn’t speak his first words until after his second birthday and has been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, a mild form of autism. But then again: Einstein didn’t speak until age four, and many psychiatrists now believe that he may have had Asperger’s disorder, as well.

Early on, Jacob’s parents were concerned that he might have problems in school. “Oh my gosh, when he was two, my fear was that he would never be in our world at all,” Jacob's mother told The Indianapolis Star last month. “He would not talk to anyone. He would not even look at us.” Instead, his abilities have soared. He taught himself algebra, geometry, and calculus, leaving high school at age eight and enrolling at IUPUI, where he is currently studying and excelling in his advanced physics and mathematics courses.

Although they give him plenty of opportunities to explore his interest in physics, Jacob’s parents also insist that he spend time with friends his own age. He plays video games and basketball with friends; he has a girlfriend and he recently attended his first dance.

In his YouTube video, Jacob explains his expanded hypothesis, based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Professors at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey have followed Jacob’s work with interest. “The theory that he’s working on involves several of the toughest problems in astrophysics and theoretical physics,” Professor Scott Tremaine wrote to Barnett’s family.

Jacob’s professors at IUPUI agree. “We have told him that after this semester . . . enough of the bookwork. You are here to do some science,” physics professor John Ross told The Indianapolis Star. “If we can get all of those creative juices in a certain direction, we might be able to see some really amazing stuff down the road.”
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.”