"American Idol" and Tourette Syndrome — what is the link, and how exactly does Tourette’s affect language?

You can never predict the circumstances that rocket a word into the stratosphere of public awareness. This season’s “American Idol” has accomplished this feat for not one, but two complex illnesses: Tourette Syndrome (TS) and Asperger Syndrome (AS.)

One of the “Idol” constestants, James Durbin from Santa Cruz, California, has both of these disorders. As each week passes, Durbin ishelping to change the perception many people have of these two very misunderstood afflictions.

Both TS and AS are neuropsychiatric “alphabet disorders” (a growing number of disorders that are commonly referred to by their acronym), that affect one in six children. Tourette Syndrome, named in 1885 by French physician Georges Gilles de la Tourette, is characterized by the presence of chronic vocal and motor tics – usually surfacing by the age of eighteen. Two particular language behaviors are found primarily in people with TS: Echolalia, repeating the words of others, and palilalia, repeating one’s own words and thoughts. One of the most distinguishing aspects of Tourette Syndrome is coprolalia – an obsessive or uncontrollable use of obscene language. Only 10% of people with Tourette’s exhibit signs of this involuntary phonic tic — eye blinking and throat clearing are the most common symptoms. Though there is no known cause for TS, it is believed that both genetic and environmental factors are involved.

(Studies have shown that there may be a causal link between stuttering and Tourette Syndrome. Learn the surprising literal meaning of the word “stuttering,” here.)

Asperger Syndrome, named in 1944 by Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, is an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) characterized by difficulties with social interactions and restrictive, repetitive patterns of behavior and thoughts. While the disorder does not interrupt linguistic and cognitive development, atypical use of language, including verbosity (an excess use of words), difficulty with interpretations and oddities in loudness, pitch and rhythm are frequent symptoms. Children with AS exhibit abnormally advanced vocabulary beginning at an early age. However, they often have difficulty understanding “figurative” language – in other words, they tend to interpret language literally.

These disorders may in fact relate to this Web site in another way: The British author Samuel Johnson, who composed the pioneering “Dictionary of the English Language,” published in 1755, is believed to have had Tourette Syndrome.


  1. Go ThunderClan -  November 21, 2013 - 9:34 pm

    I have a friend with Tourette’s (or TS as it’s now called). I’ve never noticed it, though, until my mom told me. At its worst, Tourette’s (I refuse to use the acronym) could cause you to randomly blurt out profanity. That’s probably pretty rare though. (Thank goodness.)

    I don’t like acronyms because where I live there are about six dozen schools and every one of them goes by their acronyms. ASK, BSK, ABS…my piano teacher calls them the M-O-U-S-E schools. :-)

    Erin Hunter’s books are awesome. Everyone should read Warriors. The first book is “Into the Wild.” I plan to write my own fan fiction series (the biggest threat the Warrior cats have ever faced!)…but I’m wondering how I could ever live up to the Erins. (There are 6 of them.) Could anyone who reads this please tell me which you like better as a warrior name: Hazelbird or Hazelfern? Thank you to anyone who comments to this.

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  3. TheNewFword -  March 8, 2012 - 11:19 am

    My question is somewhat relative to the reference of “stuttering”. Where did the word “lisp” originate? Why grant a word to people that cannon correctly pronounce it?

  4. Kenzie -  July 19, 2011 - 5:46 pm

    Well i dont always cry just occasionally but its kinda like im getting made fun of even tho they just asked me a question.

  5. Kenzie -  July 19, 2011 - 5:33 pm

    i have tourette syndrome also…This disorder makes me roll myeyes,twitch my neck, and move my wrist around. Kids in school will always ask me “why do you roll your eyes” and i will just asked to be exused and go to the bathroom and start to cry.

  6. HELLO! People are suffering! -  April 7, 2011 - 10:33 am

    You ALL have no lives arguing over dictionary.com, why don’t you all put this effort towards something useful

  7. Guest -  March 30, 2011 - 12:42 pm

    The comment by Marbella was unwarranted. Shane was simply commenting on how other people might interpret Steve Tyler’s words. He made no judgment value on the words by Steven Tyler. For someone to go off on an internet forum and write a paragraph (wrongly) probably means that they should relax…or maybe they have TS.

  8. Maggie -  March 28, 2011 - 8:50 am

    I hope James Durbin wins…love him

  9. Lauren -  March 28, 2011 - 4:47 am

    I agree with Shane. It’s not about being politicallly correct.
    I’m sure Steven didn’t mean to cause any offence, but some people with Aspergers tend to take comments like that literally – one of my friends has AS and you have to be very careful with what you say to him and how you phrase it, as he gets upset and depressed quite easily.
    However, I guess everyone’s entitled to their opinion..

  10. thewhelktamer -  March 28, 2011 - 2:47 am

    While I agree that sometimes language can be used in a jokey way, without intent for harm (which I’m sure Steven’s comment was), I think we still have a responsibility to be cautious with our language, particularly in the public domain. People with Aspergers aren’t ‘crazy’, and as Shane said, it must be hurtful to be labelled as so, even in jest.

    With the word so freely used on national television, it can perpetuate false stereotypes, and that kind of thinking might become the norm. I don’t mean to suggest policing the way we use language, but I’m sure for an Aspergers sufferer it’s hard to ‘lighten up’ when people throw around words like ‘crazy’ without thinking of the consequences. It’s not censorship, it’s just being responsible with language – perhaps the editors of the show are at fault more than Steven himsef?

  11. me8 -  March 27, 2011 - 9:49 am

    Actually, I agree with Marbella. It’s ridiculous how “politically correct” people try to be these days. It’s one thing to be insensitive and rude, but quite another to simply be joking. I wish people could learn to LIGHTEN UP. It IRKS me.

  12. Ann -  March 26, 2011 - 12:37 pm

    Marbella, in regards to Shane’s comment I agree with him. I don’t think Steven intentionally meant any harm! Just like you wouldn’t call someone mentally challenged “retarded” as it is very offensive and has nothing to do with the “Word Police”! So why don’t you consider “lightening up” and let us have our first ammendment rights. Thank you Shane! People need to be more considerate and polite in this world of ours!

  13. Lefty -  March 26, 2011 - 8:13 am

    Maybe it’s just….dé·jà vu   
    [dey-zhah voo, vyoo; Fr. dey-zha vy]

    1. Psychology . the illusion of having previously experienced something actually being encountered for the first time.

  14. LunaKyria -  March 25, 2011 - 11:08 pm

    Random Commenter; I think a big part of things like that, for example in the case of “23″, is that you’ve become hyper-aware of the number. When you do see it, you NOTICE it – it doesn’t just slip by your subconscious. If you hadn’t watched ‘The Number 23′, would it have been special? No. You wouldn’t have noticed how often you actually see it. But once it comes to your attention…
    It’s like reading Midnighters, and spending the next month counting the letters words, looking for tridecalogisms (13-letter words). Or, I don’t know, learning the meaning of a really cool new word, and then constantly finding yourself in a situation where it applies. It’s just THERE in the front of your thoughts.
    At least, that’s my random opinion of that particular phenomenon.

    *colon-right-parenthesis* :)

  15. Random Commenter -  March 25, 2011 - 7:40 pm

    This was a mildly interesting article, I suppose. I think most people already have an idea of what Tourette’s could cause. Most people know that spontaneously using obscenities is part of it, but there’s more to it. I think a lot of people don’t know about Asperger’s, but it’s definitely going to become more widely known now that someone on television has the syndrome.

    I think it’s good that someone with those conditions could be on American Idol. If it weren’t for this article, though, I definitely wouldn’t have known, considering that I don’t watch American Idol. I think it’s absolute, repetitive, boring garbage.

    I really wish that you all would do an article on this phenomenon that I keep experiencing. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had this happen. Have you ever learned something(a new word, for example) and then, maybe a day or a week later, you see it on TV or someone asks you a question or says something relating to it? It’s very strange, like something’s watching me and wants to make sure I’m prepared for something that’s going to happen soon.

    In example, a friend and I were making a joke about being drunk and the name ‘Shirley’ was used in that joke. About a minute or two later, the old, black and white show that her grandfather had been watching that he had left on the TV said the name. Then, we went to a restaurant the next day and saw the name again. It popped up a lot after that. Another example is that, after watching the movie ‘The Number 23′, I started seeing 23 and 32(also mentioned in the movie) everywhere. It’s just freaky.

    Anyway, I think that would be an extremely interesting article because this always happens to me and I would really like to know if there is a scientific explanation and a term for this phenomenon. If that was written, I would be really happy. :)

  16. Iansane -  March 25, 2011 - 7:05 pm

    I agree with Marbella. She is awesome.

  17. Queen Sardonic -  March 25, 2011 - 4:39 pm

    People with Asperger’s Syndrome also, in my experience, tend to be more musically talented, probably because of the high understanding of ‘literal’ things, and the escape from reality it provides for the musician/composer.
    My music teacher has Asperger’s, and she is an AMAZING violinist. School was intensely difficult for her, but she excelled in music, so now, along with those of us who just want to learn violin, she teaches young people with Asperger’s. A lot of her students who are affected by Asperger’s are also very talented players.
    Great article!!!

  18. sherryyu -  March 25, 2011 - 2:12 pm

    rats that was harsh

  19. nb -  March 25, 2011 - 11:20 am

    as someone with strong Asperger’s tendencies, I’m so excited to know awareness about Aspergers is being raised through a show like American Idol! because while I don’t know how common this is statistically, I and some others with AS have struggled to the point of considering suicide. so to me, increased awareness means greater public sensitivity and understanding, and therefore more lives being saved.

  20. Marbella -  March 25, 2011 - 11:05 am

    Shane, I’ve noticed in life not to take everything at a face value, such as you have with the remark by Steven Tyler to James Durbin in “having a certain amount of crazy…”. When every word begins to be scrutinized by the “Word Police” and the political correctness that pervades our society, then it becomes a hinderance, rather than a help. Calm down Shane. Sit back and lighten up. I am positive that Mr. Tyler did not mean any harm in portraying James’ singing style as “crazy”, only as a compliment to the exhuberance that comes from his performance. Again, lighten up.

  21. Svenjamin -  March 25, 2011 - 9:54 am

    For the record, these are not “illnesses”. A person can’t “catch” them, they are not communicable. The more recent and common school of thought, at least for Tourette Syndrome, is that environmental factors can exascerbate the symptoms, or even force symptoms to manifest, but the disorder is widely considered to be purely genetically rooted.

  22. wordjunkie -  March 25, 2011 - 9:11 am

    I do believe that people are becoming more and more aware of AS. I also found it interesting to learn more about TS. My son has a friend that exhibits some of those symptoms. Makes me wonder…..

  23. Cass -  March 25, 2011 - 9:07 am

    I feel like books about AS are everywhere, ever since my brother was diagnosed

  24. JodyG -  March 25, 2011 - 8:16 am

    I’ve been hearing a lot about Aspergers lately. I first became aware of it while watching an episode of Parenthood on TV. One of the sons, Max, has AS and recently his parents sat him down to tell him he has it. Also Zev on the Amazing Race has AS. Now that I know, I’m going to do a little more research in to it.

  25. Shane -  March 25, 2011 - 6:58 am

    It didn’t help that the other day Steven Tyler told Durbin that he was the “right amount of crazy!” or something along those lines. people suffering from these afflictions are often quite sensitive to being called ‘crazy’.

  26. Cole -  March 25, 2011 - 5:49 am

    Didn’t know about AS. Cool insights!

  27. Katharine -  March 24, 2011 - 5:53 pm

    I like that people can learn about Asperger Syndrome, even if it is through something like “American Idol.” I was diagnosed with it when I was nine years old and it’s interesting to see how many people have never heard of it or think I’m making up an illness to get attention. Maybe this will help people become a little more understanding.

  28. Ray -  March 24, 2011 - 5:48 pm


    In a movie decades ago, about porpoises being used for clandestine suicide missions, it was commented that porpoises did not understand the subjunctive form– i.e. that they understood the literal form….

    Is this true, about porpoises, or was it Hollywood?

  29. Kelly -  March 24, 2011 - 4:12 pm

    Dr. Oliver Sacks writes about a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome in “An Anthropologist on Mars”.


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