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Toronto teens convince celebrities to participate in autism awareness project

A group of Toronto high-school students are aiming for what might seem nearly impossible: convincing celebrities to wear their blue scarf at the end of February to spread awareness of autism.

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But just a week into their initiative, they’ve already been successful. Branden Campbell, the bassist of Neon Trees, has agreed to wear one on the morning show Live with Kelly and Michael on Feb. 12. The band also posted the a promo for the project on YouTube.

Now they local teens are going after other famous people, including Brad Pitt, Justin Bieber and Ellen DeGeneres.

The initiative, called the Six Degree Project, was created by three students at Northern Secondary School. It’s based on the popular idea that everyone is six or fewer links away from any other person in the world.

The students are asking the community to go to the site and share if they have a connection, no matter how small, to a celebrity, as well as if they know someone who is on the autism spectrum. The goal is to prompt people in the media’s eye — and all of us — to wear a blue scarf the week of Feb. 25, and talk about why they’re wearing them.

The idea began with Emily Albert, 16, and Mia Kibel, 17, who were inspired by the “awesome” Carly Fleischmann, a fellow student who has autism, to create more buzz around the issue. Fleischmann, 17, communicates through a computer, and is well known for a book she wrote with her father, Arthur Fleischmann, called Carly’s Voice: Breaking through Autism.

“She’s become such incredible advocate for the disorder,” Albert says. “We approached her to see if she had any ideas and she just had this vision in the blink of an eye.”

It quickly became bigger than anything the two teens originally conceived. The trio brainstormed and came up with a list of 12 celebrities, choosing the last two weeks of February as a deadline.

“(Carly) originally said ‘I want Brad Pitt’ and we said ‘There’s no chance to get Brad Pitt.’ But she insisted,” Albert recalls, then adds excitedly: “Already we have three e-mails saying ‘I think I’m connected to Brad Pitt.’”

A slick website was born, created with help from Arthur Fleischmann’s marketing company. It has netted nearly 3,000 views and 40 contributors in the first two days after last week’s launch. The group is currently arranging production of the scarves, which sell for $20, and taking preorders on their site.

“(Carly) dreams big and goes for it and makes things happen,” Albert says. “I think that’s why we’ve had such a great response so far.”

The project, which is affiliated with Autism Speaks Canada, is fully endorsed by faculty and staff at Northern.

“I am really proud of the work they have done, because it’s a unique approach to raising awareness of autism,” says the school’s principal, Ron Felsen.

Several students at Northern fall along the autism spectrum, with moderate to severe symptoms, Felsen notes, adding that Northern’s 1,800-wide student body helps make their special education program the largest in Ontario’s high schools.

“Over 1,000 students in this building fall under the designation of special education,” he says.

The school’s heightened awareness contributes to the level of acceptance for their challenged students, Albert says. “For whatever reason, at Northern we just understand and go forward,” she says.

She says they haven’t discussed an ideal number of signatories. “But I’m sure Carly knows,” she says, laughing.