May 05, 2015 8:00 AM

Author: Office of Public Affairs


Autism is the fastest growing developmental disorder in the U.S. today. It affects one in 68 kids, according to Autism Speaks.

So it’s no wonder advocacy groups and celebrities are looking to raise awareness of this highly prevalent disorder. In March, TV personalities Willie Geist and Meredith Vieira started the Twizzler Challenge to support the nonprofit organization New York Collaborates for Autism. They hope to follow the success of last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge.

The challenge this time involves two people eating opposite ends of a Twizzler until they meet in the middle. The idea is to post video of you and a friend performing the challenge on social media using the hashtag #TwizzlerChallenge, and then nominate two more people to do it or make a donation. Several stars have taken part, including Jimmy Kimmel and Rihanna, Hoda Kotb and Flo Rida, and, most recently, Star Wars director JJ Abrams and Chewbacca.

You may be wondering what eating a Twizzler has to do with autism. William McMahon, MD, the director of Autism Community Outreach for the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Utah, has an idea.

“The connection is a very ironic one,” he says. “People with autism have great difficulty making eye-to-eye contact.”

So when two people eat opposite ends of a piece of licorice, as the distance gets shorter and shorter they feel their personal space threatened and it gets awkward. They briefly experience what many people with autism experience every day.

McMahon thinks the Twizzler Challenge will raise awareness about the disorder.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that they don’t want friends and don’t feel social attachments,” he says. “An important outcome would be more inclusion of individuals with autism in social and recreational activities.”

McMahon says autism awareness is better than it used to be. Over the past decade, TV shows and movies have featured characters who have autism.

“But it’s still a challenge,” he says. “Autism is extremely variable. If you know one person with autism, you only know one person with autism.”

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