Does James Durbin Really Have Autism?

Fox / 19 Entertainment

James Durbin delivered another knockout performance tonight on American Idol, which included a rendition of Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Coming.” His vocal range was once again impressive and other than some competition from Casey Abrams and Jacob Lusk, Durbin clearly outshined all of the other male contestants.

As Durbin continues to press forward to the coveted American Idol “Top 13,” the blogosphere has been buzzing in recent weeks about his similarities to last year’s runner up, Adam Lambert, his Tourrette’s Syndrome and his Asperger’s. Included in this chatter is speculation by some that Durbin may not be autistic at all and is only using his “autism” as a way to garner sympathy votes from both judges and viewers.

Even on our own site last week, in another story on Durbin, several comments were posted by someone using the handle “starsky299” that included the following:

“He will get pity votes for his Tourrett’s (sic), and that’s ok because lots of idols get pity votes, and he’s a good singer. But he shouldn’t get pity votes for autism when he really isn’t autistic. If he is, he has such a mild case of it, he’s practically normal. His facial twitches which got him teased isn’t normal… But that’s not the same thing as autism. People will say there are similarities and links to autism which is true, but he’s so high functioning it’s a non issue. I mean, the guy can do more than I can do and I’m not even autistic.”


As someone who has a child with high functioning autism, it was very difficult not to be upset at the ignorance of such statements. First of all, it is unwise and irresponsible to question someone’s condition based on what is seen by a few minutes of television time. To compound matters, all episodes of American Idol so far have been taped, meaning producers have been able to cherry pick and edit unflattering characteristics that Durbin may have shown so far.

Aside from that is the bigger issue of what people think autism really is. Children on the higher end of the spectrum struggle with these issues on a daily basis and it takes a high profile person such as James Durbin to expose the misconceptions that currently exist among the general population.

Because of stereotypes and lack of awareness, autism is still a very confusing and misunderstood disorder, even for those related to someone on the autism spectrum. Later on, Starsky299 mentioned that his brother has “classic” autism, noting the following:

“My brother is truly, classically autistic and it truly holds him back. He can not cross the street without help because he can’t understand how traffic works.”


While we certainly feel for starsky’s brother, he should not be defined by what holds him back. He should be defined by what he is capable of, including his unique gifts, abilities and personality.

There are many people with Asperger’s Syndrome who are not diagnosed until adulthood and there are even some with moderate-to-severe autism who have not been properly screened or diagnosed. Autism is truly a “spectrum disorder” and not mutually exclusive to lower functioning individuals, nor is it reserved for those on the higher end of the spectrum. We are all part of the same family — it just happens that those who are affected experience the world in varying degrees, some more extreme than others.

As someone once told me, having autism is like being in a hurricane. Some happen to get the ferocious winds of an eye-wall, while others may only experience the feeder bands of the outer part of the storm. This does not change the fact that we all have been hit by a hurricane.

Certainly, we do not want to marginalize the challenges of those on the lower end of the spectrum as some cases are truly heart wrenching, but the truth is, having an autism spectrum disorder poses major challenges for all of those who are affected.

Hopefully, as awareness increases, more people will come to better understand those difficulties and eventually come to appreciate what James Durbin has been able to accomplish, which includes overcoming many challenges and obstacles to get where he is today.