The puzzle piece has long provided a negative view of autism that is often not supported by the actually autistic community. I, and many other autistics, prefer the rainbow infinity symbol as a way to represent autism in a more positive, inclusive light.
This might come as a surprise to some of my neurotypical readers: I do not like the puzzle piece. In fact, I detest it. As do many within the actually autistic community.
You may be asking yourself, “but Jessica, if the autism community hates the puzzle piece so much, why have I never heard of the controversy?”. Well, my dear readers, it has to do with a long history of silencing autistic voices while promoting the voices of parents and clinicians.
One of the first uses of the puzzle piece to symbolize autism was in the United Kingdom in 1963. It was then that an image of a crying child was placed over the puzzle piece symbol. According to a non-autistic parent at the time, “the puzzle piece is so effective because it tells us something about autism: Our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in'”. This puzzle piece didn’t just represent how “puzzling” of a condition autism is, but that autism needed to be cured and that the cure for autism was the missing piece.
Although the National Autistic Society no longer uses this particular symbol, the puzzle piece has stuck and become the most recognizable symbol for autism throughout the world. In 2004, Alaska’s Special Education Service Agency stated that “puzzle pieces were still a good representation of autism due to the many years [that] parents and professionals alike have been baffled by this disorder”. In 2008, Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Autism Services states that the puzzle piece is still used to represent autism because because there is still so much mystery surrounding the condition.
One of the most influential groups in promoting the puzzle piece symbol has been Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks was founded in 2005 and has used the puzzle piece logo to spread their version of autism awareness ever since. Today Autism Speaks claims that the puzzle piece simply represents their search for answers about autism. The problem that I, and many other autistic people have with this view, is that their idea of searching for answers means finding a cure for autism. In the past, Autism Speaks has publicly called autism a disease. Take a look at their “I Am Autism” commercial from 2009.
Although Autism Speaks no longer uses this commercial due to negative pushback, much of their agenda is still directly in violation of a key autistic saying: “Nothing About Us, Without Us”. Autism Speaks has historically been an “advocacy” organization that was focused on the wants and beliefs of parents, caregivers, and clinicians. The problem is that this will always only provide an outsider-looking-in perspective on autism. Autistic people need and deserve to be involved in their own advocacy.
I have linked below a flyer made by the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) about Autism Speaks with further information on major errors within their organization. For those that are interested in learning more, I hope to write future blog posts about Autism Speaks and my preferred autism organizations, but in the meantime, I highly reccommend readers check out ASAN. It’s an awesome organization run BY actually autistic people FOR actually autistic people!
There is still much more to this story than I can fit in a short blog, such as blue puzzle pieces being used by Autism Speaks to represent that autistics are only boys, but even the short history I’ve provided should be enough for folks to question the usage and hopefully do some of their own research.
At the end of the day, the puzzle piece symbol is problematic because it:
- Depicts autistic persons as puzzling and less than human
- Describes us as missing a key piece of the puzzle (hint: we’re a different neurotype, not just neurotypicals with defective brains)
- Depicts a negative view of autism that requires a cure
Honestly, the only benefit of the puzzle piece I can think of is this: it shows me which organizations listen to the thoughts and opinions of actually autistic people.
Instead of the puzzle piece, I have chosen, alongside many other actually autistic people, to use the rainbow infinity symbol. You may have noticed it on my blog before. I prefer the rainbow infinity symbol because a) it isn’t associated with the same negative history of the puzzle piece, but instead comes from the neurodiversity movement and b) the rainbow reflects the wide spectrum that is autism and the many different individuals within. Most of all though, I like the rainbow infinity symbol because it was chosen to represent autism by other autistics.
Although I dislike the puzzle piece, I recognize that there are some autistics who still prefer it and who perhaps hope to reclaim it. I support these individuals full heartedly. My goal here is not to dictate what our community should do, but to point out that WE should be the ones to decide. Not our therapists, not our parents, not our caregivers.
Nothing about us without us.
- Gernsbacher, Morton Ann et al. “Do puzzle pieces and autism puzzle piece logos evoke negative associations?.” Autism : the international journal of research and practice vol. 22,2 (2018): 118-125. doi:10.1177/1362361317727125