James Durbin, the American Idol contestant often compared to Adam Lambert for his heavy metal edge and high-pitched wail, literally dazzled viewers—and the judges—March 16th with on-stage pyrotechnics during his rendition of Jon Bon Jovi’s power ballad, “I’ll be There for You.” Along with his flashy showmanship, the 22-year-old rocker from Santa Cruz, California has an inner fire that has propelled him to the top 11 so far in the competition, despite the challenges of battling two often misunderstood disorders: Asperger syndrome and Tourette syndrome.
At age 9, Durbin lost his father, a musician, to a drug overdose. After his dad’s death, he was put on medication for stress and a sleep disorder, then was evaluated at Stanford Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome (AS), a high functioning form of autism, and with Tourette syndrome (TS). “As I was getting older, at school people would tell me, ‘Cut that out! Stop that!’ …I always got made fun of, beat up,” Durbin recently told Idol viewers, adding that when he sings, “it all just goes away, like I don’t have a care in the world.”
Dan Ackroyd is another celebrity who has both conditions, which frequently occur together and are three to four times more likely to strike males than females. The two disorders are thought to have genetic component, and researchers recently discovered a gene for a neurological syndrome that includes autistic behaviors. If inherited factors trigger AS and TS, that could be a concern for Durbin, who has a toddler son with his fiancée, Heidi.
Although involuntary swearing (coprolalia) is the best-known symptom of Tourette syndrome, only a small minority of people with TS have this problem. The condition, which affects about one in 100 Americans, is a neurological disorder that triggers involuntary movements and vocal outbursts called tics. These symptoms often start between ages 7 and 10 and tend to be worst during the teen years.On Idol, Durbin has shown such characteristic symptoms as blinking and facial twitches. Another Idol contestant reportedly affected by TS is Arkansas’ Dave Pittman who appeared on season 9.
Other TS symptoms include grimacing, head or shoulder jerking, repetitive throat clearing, hopping, grunting, and barking. About 200,000 Americans have a severe form of TS that may spark self-injury, such as people punching themselves in the face, uttering swear words, and compulsively repeating the words and phrases of others. Some people with TS can learn to camouflage their tics. Most don’t need medication, but drugs may be prescribed if the tics are severe enough to interfere with daily activities.
Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder that can cause repetitive rituals, obsessions, oddities of speech, such as talking in a monotone, shouting or taking figures of speech literally, eccentric behavior and inappropriate facial expressions, trouble connecting with peers, and clumsy movements. It affects about one in 5,000 Americans and is associated with normal intelligence. There is no single treatment, but kids with Asperger syndrome can benefit from social skills training, cognitive behaviorial therapy, medication for co-existing problems like depression or anxiety, speech therapy and support from parents and teachers. Many adults with AS hold jobs, though Durbin is unemployed and prior to being on the show, was so broke that at times, he and his fiancée couldn’t afford diapers for their toddler.
“The thing about Asperger’s is that it’s about social awkwardness and not being able to contain yourself and being overwhelmed…” Durbin said on Idol. He is one of the most emotional contestants, known for crying easily. Still, despite his disabilities, he has connected so well with judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler that they deem him one of the competition’s frontrunners. “I have Tourette’s and Asperger’s, but Tourette’s and Asperger’s don’t have me,” he declared in an Idol interview. “I’m doing what I can to suppress it. It’s not who I am.”