Autistic Alex

Blogging about neurodiversity, psychology and autism research.

Why you need to stop using the puzzle piece to represent autistic people

237 Comments

I hate the puzzle piece. I hate it with every fiber of my being. Therefore, since in a lot of places it’s national autism awareness month, I’m going to write about why you shouldn’t use the puzzle piece.

 

First; a little history on the puzzle piece. It was originally a national autistic society symbol. It’s history is documented here , towards the end of the piece, but the important bits regarding the puzzle piece are quoted lower down here. (trigger warning for ableism on that piece).

That first logo was this.

[Image description] A disembodied weeping head on a puzzle piece.

[Image description] A disembodied weeping head on a puzzle piece.

“’The Committee decided that the symbol of the Society should be the puzzle as this did not look like any other commercial or charitable one as far as they could discover’. It first appeared on our stationary and then on our newsletter in April 1963. Our Society was the first autistic society in the world and our puzzle piece has, as far as I know, been adopted by all the autistic societies which have followed, many of which in their early days turned to us for information and advice.

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’. The suggestion of a weeping child is a reminder that autistic people do indeed suffer from their handicap.

If, in the future, we can invest in our Society even more thought, effort and commitment, our puzzle piece will, at least in this country, become no longer just a logo on a letterhead but a symbol of hope for autistic people and their families.”

Let’s take this apart. So, it was adopted because it didn’t look like any other logos, which is fine. But then this apparently tells us something about autism, which is not ok. Now, this piece is from 1997, and the logo was changed in 2002, so this does not likely reflect current views of the national autistic society, although it is still on their site. Apparently we don’t fit in, we suffer (hence the weeping child)because we are autistic, and we are puzzling/ disabled by a puzzling condition. Oh, and it’s supposed to be a symbol of hope. I’ll explain why all these things are bad later in this post, but this is mainly here to show that the puzzle piece never, ever had positive connotations.

It has now of course been co-opted by organisations far worse than the national autistic society ever was, like Autism Speaks, which if nothing else is a good enough reason it give it up on it’s own.

The first problem I have with the puzzle piece is that it’s a very childish symbol. Although many adults do love jigsaws, it is predominantly a child’s activity, and as such has connotations of childhood. This is bad for the autistic community as a whole, as more of us are adults than are children, but people really do forget we exist, and that phrases like “autistic children and their families” excludes a good chunk of the autistic population. We really don’t need more association with childhood. It’s hard to deny that images like this are undeniably childish.

[Image description] Image is of a ribbon with small puzzle pieces in bright, primary colours.

[Image description] Image is of a ribbon with small puzzle pieces in bright, primary colours.

There is then the issue of the implications of using a puzzle piece. It implied that we are something to be solved or fixed, which simply isn’t true. We don’t need to be fixed, or solved  there’s nothing wrong with us, and most attempts to fix us, such as ABA are actively harmful. This implication of the puzzle piece is reflected is autism speaks “until all the pieces fit” rhetoric, and reinforces the idea that we are broken.

[Image description] A puzzle piece ribbon in a box, with text reading “The autism awareness ribbon: The puzzle pattern of this ribbon reflects the mystery and complexity of autism. The different colours and shapes represent the diversity of those living with this disorder. The brightness of the ribbon signals hope- hope through research and increasing awareness in people like you]

[Image description] A puzzle piece ribbon in a box, with text reading “The autism awareness ribbon: The puzzle pattern of this ribbon reflects the mystery and complexity of autism. The different colours and shapes represent the diversity of those living with this disorder. The brightness of the ribbon signals hope- hope through research and increasing awareness in people like you]

Another thing the puzzle piece is supposed to symbolise is the “mystery and complexity of autism”. Autism is no more mysterious or complex than any other neurological disorder really. And it doesn’t exist as a thing separable from autistic people, so they’re really trying to say that we’re mysterious because they don’t understand us. Clue: Just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean it’s mysterious. The key part in that is you not understanding something, because autistic people tend to understand ourselves pretty well, and allistic less well, but we don’t get to go around calling you “mysterious”, because well, we’d look silly calling something mysterious because we personally couldn’t make sense of it. I don’t go around calling calculus mysterious just because I personally don’t understand it, because I understand that there are people who do.

I’ll touch on the colours issue since most puzzle piece art for “autism awareness” is in this colour scheme of bright red and yellow, light blue and dark blue. So, that’s supposed to represent the “diversity” of autistic people? With a really childish colour scheme? When most us are adults? Yes, we’re all different, that’s true with any group of people. I don’t really get how three colours represents diversity either. Maybe a rainbow would be better like, I don’t know, the neurodiversity symbol?

[Image description] A rainbow hued infinity symbol.

[Image description] A rainbow hued infinity symbol.

Hope for autistic people. What does that mean? “hope through research and awareness” doesn’t sound very good to me. Research seems like cure, because, well has the understanding of the neurotypical brain really improved neurotypical lives? Are most allistic people somehow better off than they were a hundred years ago because we now know which part of the brain is connected to emotions? Obviously not. People being vaguely aware of autism doesn’t actually help very much either. Acceptance would, but really, the puzzle piece is about fixing us, not helping or accepting  us.

We’re people, not puzzles, we’re whole, there’s nothing wrong with us. There are indeed communication barriers between autistic people and neurotypicals, but they go both ways, we are not the puzzle. You only see pieces missing from a person if you have this preconceived idea of what “person” looks like. If you don’t then you just see a person who’s not like you. This is the idea behind neurodiversity, that we may not be like you, but that this doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with us.

[Image description]A white woman (aspierhetor) with blonde hair, holding a blue sign that reads: "People not puzzles!" (from aspierhetor)

[Image description]A white woman (aspierhetor) with blonde hair, holding a blue sign that reads: “People not puzzles!” (from aspierhetor)

Now, people do argue that since it’s an established sign for autism (regardless of whether a lot of that was done by autism speaks) people should continue to use it. But is is a harmful one, it doesn’t have any positive meanings and it never really did. It isn’t, therefore, something we should be trying to reclaim as autistic people, as it isn’t really a neutral symbol used against us by organisations like autism speaks, it’s always been a negative symbol.

We have positive symbols, like the National Autistic Society’s new logo

[Image description] A heavily stylised symbol of two figures reaching out to each other, with text reading “The National Autistic Society”

[Image description] A heavily stylised symbol of two figures reaching out to each other, with text reading “The National Autistic Society”

and the neurodiversity symbol

[Image description] A rainbow hued infinity symbol.

[Image description] A rainbow hued infinity symbol.

so we should use them.

If you can think of any other points do put them in the comments, I’m sure I’ve missed one or two.

 

Links to other people talking about the puzzle piece

http://suburpcomix.wordpress.com/2013/12/15/the-puzzle-piece-symbol-for-autism/

http://unpuzzled.net/2012/04/23/on-puzzles-privilege-and-missing-pronouns-from-journeys-with-autism/

http://diversityrules.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/04/puzzling-people.html

http://unpuzzled.net/

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237 thoughts on “Why you need to stop using the puzzle piece to represent autistic people

  1. Pingback: Please Don’t Support Autism $Peaks: From An Autistic And His Community (Email Sent To A Sorority At My School That Supports Autism $Peaks)+additional resources (updated 4/3/17) – Articulate Autistic

  2. I like your way of looking at the puzzle piece but personally I think it is too late to change. All brands have an image, You see that image and it makes you think of that brand. That is how it works, I see a jigsaw puzzle badge and I immediately think of Autism. If someone is collecting or raising funds with that symbol I recognise it and I am prepared to donate. If I see someone with a symbol that I do not recognise I would just walk straight past without giving. Stay with what people know, you might not be alone in your thinking but I think many more would support the puzzle piece as it is.

  3. I value your perspective on this. Personally, my interpretation of the ‘puzzle’ was as a reflection of a longing to understand the complexities of Autism – to ‘put the pieces together’ (so to speak) in an effort to better support Autistic individuals. I also did not consider it as a representation of the individuals with Autism so much, but rather a representation of the quest to understand the full spectrum of Autism. I did not see it as representing something broken, however I can see where you are coming from. I agree that the color scheme is childish, but I think of puzzles as a more adult activity than a childish one (I used to spend hours doing puzzles with my grandparents – it was one of their favorite pastimes and a great way to bond with them- so I also have a very warm and fuzzy feeling when I think of puzzles).

    Given what you wrote, I can see how it can be offensive however. I would not want my identity to be wedged into a logo, nor would I want to be thought of as a puzzle instead of a person.

    I would argue that there is benefit to research – not so much in seeking a ‘cure’, but in learning how Autism affects the brain, we have become better able to provide the necessary supports for people with Autism, and to educate others (teachers, care providers, employers, retailers, and others) about Autism. It helps us create a more “Autism Friendly” world rather than simply expecting those with Autism to change and fit it, judging them, and institutionalizing them. Without research and education, we remain ignorant and people get hurt. We have a long way to go, but I do see a lot of movement in that direction.

    I really like the neurodiversity symbol. It feels more all encompassing and embracing of all people – not just those with Autism. Withing the entire human population there is an infinite spectrum of nuances, differences, challenges, strengths and similarities. I agree that it is a much better representation of wholeness.

    I really appreciate that you share your views with the world. I only recently came across your blog, but I have found it helpful. I do not always agree with you, but I think it is so important to hear different perspectives. I do not have Autism, so it is even more important for me to have access to your ideas and thoughts, as well as of others on the spectrum. It gives me a much deeper understanding, and it opens my mind to a broader view. This article is a perfect example. I had a much different interpretation of the puzzle piece, however it is important to know how those who are directly associated with it perceive it and are affected by it. Symbols are powerful and can become hurtful.

    Thank you.

  4. Love your blog. Don’t even worry about people who spread hate. Unfortunately we come face to face with people like that every day. Just knowing that it is their issue not yours that makes them so negative. I had heard some comments about the puzzle piece not being a good symbol and was looking for a good explanation of why and you did a great job explaining it. Thank You!

  5. Thank you for posting this. I agree with you. I’m sorry the other person wasn’t more considerate. Autistic people get a say in this, period.

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  28. Neuroscience has improved the lives of humanity over the past 100 years, if you define that as living longer and with less difficulty. I would argue that its wonderfully valuable at teaching non-autistic people how to understand, communicate with, assist, and appreciate autistic people.

    I think there’s a difference between “curing” people of being different, which is terrible, and treating them for specific symptoms they find unpleasant without changing who they are and how they think. I would never want my son to stop being autistic, any more than I would want to stop having ADD (and like you, I find it frustrating to be treated as someone with a disease rather than someone who is awesomely different). However, if there were a medication or therapy that could help him cope with certain sounds that he finds painfully unpleasant, or help him cope with the feeling of being emotionally overwhelmed, I think that could make his life better without making him less autistic. I take a medication that helps me stay on task at work, but it only affects one aspect of my ADD for part of the day; it doesn’t change all of the many unique and occasionally frustrating ways in which I experience, think, and act differently from what is considered “neurotypical”. As his father, I can say that having a better understanding of how his brain works has helped me to communicate with him and to teach him how to do things for himself, which fills him with great joy and pride. He loves learning in general (something he and I share) and, yes, puzzles in particular, and his emotional bond with me is especially strong; thus everything I do to understand how he feels, what he wants, and how I can help him communicate his needs and wants to me improves both of our lives greatly. Another thing I do to try and learn how better to understand him is to read blogs and essays from individuals like yourself with austism, which has been enormously helpful. There are many different perspectives from them, just as you would expect given that individuals with autism can be very different from one another and it’s called a “spectrum” for very good reason.

    I’m not arguing for or against the puzzle piece; you raise some significant concerns, to be certain. But I had to register my disagreement regarding the value of research and understanding. Yes, I too feel angry when people talk about a “cure” for autism, because my son’s uniqueness is a blessing. But “research” does not equal “cure”, and understanding the functioning of the brain, neurotypical or otherwise, has provided great value (beyond just the fact that science and knowledge are wonderful ends unto themselves, which they are) that has benefited people in ways too numerous to put into a single comment.

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  41. Hi Alex,

    I have read your comment and I just want to share my limited point and perspective. I can understand what a negative connotation the puzzle piece may have on you and as the lady above mentioned about being identified by a logo for her depression would be a sad reality in a sense.

    But I do want to share that it isn’t all that bad of an idea to be notified by any logo. Perhaps can I share, as a Christian, that Christ followers are identified by the cross. Jesus is represented by the cross. The cross carries sooooo many connotations with it. To some it is salvation and some hate the sign with all their fiber being. Could I suggest the same with the puzzle piece? If this puzzle piece is being widely known among society and what it is implying, then couldn’t it be a huge evangelistic symbol to educate about autism? Even consider how well known the puzzle piece is becoming. It is a huge evangelism logo for autism.

    For your outlook on the puzzle piece that carries a childish connotation, and also the autism disorder that make “helping” organisations think autistic people as broken, mysterious, and a puzzle that is being completed as more puzzle pieces are being found. My perspective on this outlook is nothing but positive and hope, because as a Christ follower, the song “Jesus Loves Me” is reminded.

    The lyrics go:
    Jesus loves me this I know
    For the Bible tells me so
    Little ones to Him belong
    We are weak
    But He is strong.

    In this short phrase I believe that everything a Christ follower is portrayed and told. A Christ follower is a little one to Him like a child, hence a puzzle piece that is child-play is such a perfect symbol. We are weak but He is strong. It is in our weaknesses that Christ has power not in our strength that we can come to Christ, so the connotation that autistic children are broken is the perfect identity to have, because it is in our weakness and brokenness that we come to Christ and Christ has power in us. Lastly, a broken human being becoming healed towards perfection in Christ is the most mysterious progress. Perhaps could I dare to say that it is more mysterious than any illness or disorder existing in this world. For autistic people to be known as mysterious is even more encouraging, because it was, is and will be Christ who will fix, heal, mend, and tend the broken even autistic children and no other organisation, community, or society. All these are inclusive in the umbrella of the grace of God.

    I hope this is of some encouragement and hope for you.

    • Yeah, so please don’t impose your religion on other people. If the only thing making the puzzle piece ok is your religion, then it’s not an ok symbol to use for autistic people generally, because we’re not all christians.

  42. My son has Aspergers. I think the puzzle piece is an acceptable symbol. For years we have worked and worked with him & he is getting ready to graduate high school. He understands his issues as the family has adopted them. As a mother I am grieved with this article. Let’s love and help all our children!

    • Many parents of autistic think it’s ok. However, you aren’t autistic, so can you see how our perspective is more important in how we’re represented? Like how parents of gay people don’t have a voice in deciding what pride symbols are.

      I don’t know why this post upsets you, it’s not saying we shouldn’t help autistic children. Also, I don’t have children.

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  44. Okay, I know that this post is VERY old but I REALLY, REALLY had to add my two cents. The original article/blog was over three years ago, right around the time my Aspie was diagnosed. I wanted to make a wreath/ribbon for my door so I Googled if the colors of the “Autistic” puzzle were supposed to be in a specific order. My eyes were immediately drawn to your article. Wow! My daughter was diagnosed at the age of 14, yes people 14. After YEARS and YEARS and YEARS and YEARS and YEARS and YEARS of being tested for “learning disabilities” by schools, despite not having educational/grade difficulties (minus math, but even her teachers said “math of any kind is NOT easy for everyone,” she still never failed), we finally had more extensive testing with the help of her absolute genius, ASPERGER, algebra tutor. God forbid a child not be disruptive, keep to themselves, see/learn/do schoolwork right but in their own way. I guess when a parent is FINALLY given the correct diagnosis for their child, we assume all of the popular, professional, well-known/talked about, promoted and advertised Autism sites, groups and organizations know more than we do. Especially, empathy. To read: “…..our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in’. The suggestion of a weeping child is a reminder that autistic people do indeed suffer from their handicap.” was beyond infuriating. The neuropsychologist who tested and diagnosed my daughter never used words like “different, special, slow, conditions lead to isolation from normal contact (wth does that even mean?), won’t fit in, handicapped, puzzling condition, blah, blah, blah.” He said Autism or Autism Spectrum are not infectious, fearful, horrible names to be afraid of. The only thing he said would be a challenge is the assumptions that your daughter will think, do, feel, experience, act, and react in the exact same way as every single Aspie in the whole wide wolrd. In other words, our loved one’s biggest challenge and ours as parents is other people. Not only are we all learning, but we have to teach/deal with the ignorant and the “but she doesn’t look…..” unwanted advice. I mean, all kids/people are born unique with their our quirky behaviors. *So to the very first person who commented, I REALLY hope you get this reply. All I saw was hatefulness in your comment. If you have no problem with you or someone you know being described by “The Puzzle Piece People” as a sad, broken, suffering, etc. person, by all means embrace the labels. I no longer care to proudly adopt or show off a symbol with such a ignorant message behind it. Thank you AutisticAlex if you’re still blogging!

  45. This was a really thought provoking piece. Thank you for sharing. I’ve just started an online magazine about neurodiversity (www.neurodiverge.com), and we currently don’t have many posts about autism. I was wondering if you would let me repost your article (with a link back to your original post)? I think it would really fit on the website.

    Yours sincerely,
    Brooke

  46. Good Morning Alex I’m not sure you will read this as I see you have many replies. I understand from reading your past comments that most parents with children with ASD like the puzzle piece. I however am not one to them! I have never liked it and always felt uncomfortable with it. The single piece of puzzle to me always felt like the missing piece of puzzle lost and alone. My son isn’t lost. I am sure he will feel alone throughout various time’s in his life, much like the rest of the NT’s too. So thank you for highlighting this Alex . I understand that to some it isn’t this simplified but for me it is clear I do not like this symbol as a representation for Autism.

  47. I don’t agree with you at all…stop assigning negativity and look at it in a positive way and you will see that a puzzle piece “fits in” to the world “big picture” ask around us and makes the world a more beautiful place! Each piece is unique and together we make the big picture and it can either be negative or positive!

    • Some people look at a burning cross and a white hood in a positive way. Some people look at a 45 degree angle Manji in a positive way. When I READ the words behind the puzzle pieces, there was NOTHING positive about it. If you like it, love it and support it, more power to you. The “big picture” is this: some kids/people do not want to be seen or feel like a disease that needs a cure. Some kids wear glasses. Some kids can’t run fast.. Some kids hate science. Are those kids missing something or need to fit in with what society considers “normal?” Give me a break. Those kids are no less or no more than mine. Every single child in the world is unique….now THAT is what makes this world beautiful! My child does not want to be a missing piece of a puzzle….she doesn’t even like puzzles!

  48. I you stated points that I had been agreeing with, but had never been able to articulate. Thanks for that.

    The point you missed, is that the autism speaks puzzle doesn’t make any sense. Even when all the primary-colored pieces fit together, they don’t make a picture. Makes autism speaks seem pointless.

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