WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Thanks to charismatic rocker James Durbin, “American Idol”
nights have become an excuse to play dress-up in the Brentwood, Calif., home of
Before every show, Brandon, 12, styles his hair into a spiky mohawk like the one
Durbin often sports. He also tapes his ears slightly forward, slips on several
wristbands and hangs a shirt from the back of his pants to mimic the cloth “tail”
favored by the singer from Santa Cruz, Calif.
Before this year, Brandon had never watched “American Idol.” However, he considers
Durbin to be “so awesome and cool” that his parents happily let him stay up past his
bedtime to check it out.
Why the sudden fascination? Like Durbin, Brandon has Tourette’s syndrome, the
neurological disorder that triggers involuntary movements and/or vocal outbursts
called tics. The “Idol” contestant is the first person the 12-year-old has come
across with the condition.
“It’s been like a coming-out party for Brandon,” said his mother, Malinda. “Before
this, he found it really difficult to accept his Tourette’s, or even talk about it.
James has put a face on Tourette’s and is showing Brandon that he can be comfortable
Durbin’s powerful voice and flashy showmanship have made him one of “Idol’s” main
attractions. However, he also has won over many fans by speaking frankly about his
lifelong struggles with Tourette’s and Asperger’s syndromes.
“I have Tourette’s and Asperger’s, but Tourette’s and Asperger’s don’t have me,”
Durbin, 22, said in an “Idol” interview earlier this season. “I’m doing what I can
to suppress it. It’s not who I am.”
Although awareness of Asperger’s — a high-functioning form of autism — has increased
in recent years, Tourette’s remains a highly misunderstood disorder that spawns many
Coprolalia, the form of the syndrome characterized by involuntary swearing, is quite
rare, occurring in “only about 10 percent of Tourette’s patients,” said Dr.
Elizabeth Lyster, of Foster City, Calif.
More common are symptoms that can range from blinking and facial twitches, to more
complex movements that include head and shoulder jerking, repetitive throat
clearing, hopping and grunting. The symptoms tend to wax and wane and often worsen
during stressful situations.
The disorder, in severe form, affects an estimated 200,000 people in the U.S., the
Tourette Syndrome Association reports.
Most patients do not need medication, but drugs could be prescribed if the tics are
extreme enough to interfere with daily activities. There is no cure.
Nor does it seem to affect one’s ability to rock the “American Idol” stage. Durbin
might display signs of his Tourette’s during on-camera interviews when he repeatedly
squints and scrunches up his face. But as he told “Idol” viewers, when he sings, “it
all just goes away, like I don’t have a care in the world.”