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'Idol' finalist James Durbin and Chicago high schooler pair up for Tourette's documentary

By Loren Grush

Published May 20, 2012

Eighteen-year-old Ariel Small has had an interesting childhood, going from ‘troublemaker’ to ‘filmmaker,’ all before graduating high school.

The journey started for the Chicago high school senior when he was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome at just 6 years old. His parents noticed that he had odd facial movements that he was unable to control. The condition, which affects about three out of every 1,000 children, is characterized by repeated, quick movements or sounds that a person cannot control.

Throughout grade school and middle school, Small ultimately found it hard to communicate his situation to his teachers, so he was constantly getting in trouble.

“When I was in eighth grade, I was suspended,” Small said. “I went to my principal, and he said, ‘Well you know, I don’t really think you have Tourette’s. I think you’re just using that as an excuse for bad behavior.’ At the time, I just sat there dumbfounded, and I just had no idea how to respond. As a 13 year old, I had no idea what to say.”

After struggling with being able to advocate for himself, Small set out to become an ambassador for other kids with Tourette’s in order to help them stand up for themselves. He visited multiple schools to talk about his personal struggles, but he soon found himself engaged by the stories of others.

“It was the first time I met other people with Tourette’s,” Small said of his ambassador experience. “I thought I had this incredible story, and I went out there and told them about how I was suspended – and then I realized that my story was crap. These people were being expelled; they were being home-schooled. [Some] couldn’t even get admitted to any public schools.”

“That’s when I realized that my story is really just everyone’s story,” Small added. “It’s just one unanimous experience with people with Tourette’s and people with disorders.”

Inspired by the numerous other students just like him, Small and his mother, Robin, decided to bring out the cameras and develop a documentary about Small’s journey. Called Different is the New Normal, the film is meant to break common misconceptions about Tourette’s, as well as encourage others struggling with the condition.

The title of the film is inspired by an upcoming song by 2011 American Idol finalist James Durbin, who had shared his experience with Tourette’s on the highly-rated talent show. As big fans of Durbin and the TV show, Small and his mother invited the finalist to be a part of the documentary – a request that Durbin gladly accepted. The documentary features a moving on-camera conversation between Durbin and Small about their respective stories.

“I don’t feel like a mentor or anything, I just feel like equals,” Durbin said of working with Small. “I think that can be a goal out of this documentary – making people with Tourette’s not to be looked at as an outcast or someone different. Yeah we might need more attention in school just to help keep us on track and keep us at the same level as everyone else, but we’re the same and we should be treated the same.”

Another famous face, Michael J. Fox, also lent a helping hand by narrating the documentary. Different is the New Normal premieres May 20 at 7 PM on PBS (check for local listings).