"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 is helping 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.