James Durbin

I have a confession to make. I hate American Idol.  Since its debut, I have avoided it, seeing it as an example of all I've felt was wrong with our culture. Bullying. Ugliness. Cruelty. Mean behavior. Strangely, tonight I found myself tuning into it...just in time to see a performer with Asperger's wow the judges.

After tonight's airing, James Durbin, a young father from Santa Cruz, California is now being hailed by some as "one to watch."  Gil Kaufman writes for MTV.com:

"The producers saved a doozy for the final audition spot. The hard-knock story told by James Durbin, 21, was almost too much to believe. He grew up barely knowing his bass-playing dad, who was always on the road, and was raised by his mom after his father died of a drug overdose. Later diagnosed with both Tourette syndrome and Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, Durbin turned to music to help calm his sometimes-rattled nerves.

The unemployed young father with the faux-hawk had everything to prove to the panel, and he immediately grabbed their ears with a wailing, Lambert-esque moon-shot take on Led Zeppelin's 'You Shook Me.' And, in what will likely be another boost to Aerosmith catalog sales, he asked if he could give 'Dream On' a shot as well.

Tyler dug it, shaking his head along, his eyes closed as he took in Durbin's booming, emotion-laden voice."

So, what does this mean for Asperger's and autism awareness?   Clearly, as was dramatically demonstrated in the audition, James has talent.  That's good.  It's great to see that showcased.  That being said, I worry about how producers may treat his story, and time on the show.

Too many times, when reality TV includes those with disabilities, I find that it's done in a way that can disingenuous or exploitative.  I'd love to see them show James for what he clearly is -- a talented and confident singer.  So far, the way they told his story felt geniune, and emotional.  I hope they keep it that way. 

I do see it as a sign of progress, especially for a show whose appeal has been based, in part, on poking fun at people who are different.  More than once, I've seen a contestant ridiculed who seemed to show signs of being on the spectrum or had at least some similar issues. 

One instance, a few years ago, particularly bothered me.  During the early rounds, a man came forward to perform.  As he spoke to the judges, his approach was singularly awkward.   He stared straight ahead, with little expression -- he barely seemed to blink.  As they interviewed him, he explained that his coworkers had told him to audition, that his singing was great.  So, he did.

It was excruciatingly bad.  I could barely watch...but as I did, all I could think of was bullies on the playground.  The bullies that would sarcastically tell you to do something, just to watch you do it and make a fool of yourself.  Bullies that prey on those of us who have the weakness of being unable to tell the difference between sincerity, and malice. 

It made me want to cry...because whether or not this guy was on the spectrum or not, it appeared he'd fallen victim to a classic ploy that have caused so many of us on the spectrum pain and humiliation.   And that wasn't the worst part -- people actually thought it was funny to watch.  They actually made a montage with this guy, including several others who seemed different, like him.

It's become mainstream to think it's OK to laugh at public humiliation.  And people wonder why kids behave this way on the playground?   We're modeling it for them, as a society.  That's a problem.

Why is it that someone like James, who's publicly identified as being on the spectrum, is profiled as being inspirational, while the very same producers feel perfectly OK humiliating others with similar skills and social patterns but happen not to be labeled?   Isn't that a little bit of hypocrisy?   Unfortunately, it's a hypocrisy the rest of the world often shares.   It's one that's even surfaced in schools...sadly enough. Why do we have to have a label to hang on someone before we can treat this with compassion and respect?

All I can hope is that the inclusion of people like James Durbin will challenge some of these attitudes, and the world will see that people with Asperger's have a lot to give to the world.  They have talents.  They have dreams...and are fully capable of chasing them.

At the very least, including someone on the spectrum in a positive way, rather than a negative way, accomplished something that I never thought possible:  I may actually have to start watching American Idol.

James Durbin performing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

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