The Autism Puzzle Piece: A symbol that’s going to stay or go?

By Debra Muzikar

As language evolves so does symbols.

The origins of the puzzle piece, the primary symbol for autism, go back to 1963. It was created by Gerald Gasson, a parent and board member for the National Autistic Society (formerly The Society for Autistic Children) in London. The board believed autistic people suffered from a ‘puzzling’ condition. They adopted the logo because it didn’t look like any other image used for charitable or commercial use. Included with the puzzle piece was an image of a weeping child. The weeping child was used as a reminder that Autistic people suffer from their condition.

NASlogo

When I researched, I was reminded how far we’ve come in our use of language to describe people with developmental disabilities. In the 1960’s people with developmental disabilities were referred to as mentally handicapped. People with cerebral palsy were called spastics. The label “autistic” wasn’t commonly accepted. Children with autism were thought to be psychotic and were diagnosed as having childhood schizophrenia. Autism was blamed on refrigerator mothers.

To the National Autistic Society’s credit they’ve evolved and don’t use that image anymore. This is their new image.

NationalAutisticSociety

I decided to do an informal survey of my friends on Facebook about the puzzle piece logo. Should it stay? Should it go? What would you replace it with?

puzzle

I received over 100 responses. Some people emailed me offlist. As usual the responses I received were intelligent and thought provoking.

On the side of appreciating the puzzle piece logo, parent Keri Bowers writes, “the political correctness of so many things in today’s world is disturbing to me. It’s hard to keep up, actually, as the terms flip – as in person first language (PFL). When Taylor was young, I called him an autistic child. Then that became a bad thing. Now it’s flipped back from a person with autism, to an autistic person – just where I started. A puzzle piece implies a mystery to be solved or something to be put together. Is that untrue in autism? Is that really hurtful or did we make that up to feel better? I believe my son is a mystery – still, after almost 26 years, and he is ‘missing’ certain understandings, skills and abilities as an ‘autistic person.’ He would tell you – as he told a group of volunteers at a training he helped me facilitate yesterday ‘I just don’t get certain things.’ Is it insulting to imply through imagery a particular truth about him?”

Maria Hall, parent, “My son is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma… I love the puzzle piece.”

Sally Verduzco, parent, “I love the puzzle piece… It’s part of a unit. Together all of us in our own reality and ways, place each puzzle in the right place to create a unit. Unity coming together. Many pieces as one.”

Savana Rose, parent, “I really like the puzzle. To me it does perfectly symbolize all the different ways that our individual kids fit together. It symbolizes the complicated ways in which this disorder may have happened to our kids. It symbolizes how there’s no one therapy that works for everyone and sometimes it’s a whole puzzle of therapies that actually work. How did this happen? How do we help? How are they different? How are they alike? What works? What doesn’t? It’s a complicated puzzle to me and the logo speaks all that to me.”

Marge Pamintuan, parent, “It’s a symbol – perhaps to some, it’s a ‘missing’ piece. I’d like to think our kiddos are the COMPLETING PIECE of the human puzzle.”

Just when I thought it was only parents who liked the puzzle symbol, I received this input from Erin Clemens who is on the spectrum, ” I like the puzzle piece. I like it because it’s not about the end result, but the PROCESS of putting the pieces together. I also like it because it reminds us that each person, even though all grouped in as being on the spectrum, is still unique and has their own way of fitting in.”

There were some who wouldn’t mind keeping the puzzle piece if the message behind it was reframed.

Jennifer O’Toole, “I viscerally dislike the puzzle pieces as symbols of that which must be figured out and ‘solved.’ However! Then I found these handcrafted, fused glass bracelets – where the puzzle represents the idea that we each have an essential, unique part to play in the bigger picture. And that – I like a lot.”

JenniferOTooleautismbracelet

Amy Gravino, “For me, I would have fewer reservations about the puzzle piece logo if there were a way to re-imagine the meaning behind it. So rather than it representing a missing piece in individuals on the autism spectrum, I would love for it to represent the ‘key’ piece. The puzzle piece is that component that defines each and every autistic person; that, without that piece, we couldn’t be the fantastic people that we are. So rather than looking at the puzzle and seeing a piece that is missing, I would want to look at the piece as the piece that completes it. (Unfortunately, I think the current meaning behind the puzzle piece is so enshrined in it that it’s probably impossible to change it, but I want to believe there is a way).”

Kathleen Tehrani, “I am in favor of a puzzle piece where the individual is choosing those pieces themselves… e.g., the art work of Sarah Vaughn.”

SarahVaugh puzzle piece

“I am not in favor of a puzzle piece that holds the intention that people on the spectrum are confused or incomplete,” Kathleen says.

Karen Courtney, who is Autistic, had a symbol she designed tattoeed on her arm.

tattoo

Karen feels the tattoo symbolizes her struggles and being bullied for her autism. Karen is a gifted artist and designs autism puzzle piece tattoos.

Then there were a big group of people who opposed the symbol.

Michael Leventhal “While the original intent of the puzzle piece was positive, it no longer represents the goals of advocacy. Yesterday autism was a mystery. Today, while efforts continue into autism’s etiology, the main focus is on applying what we have learned to make society and institutions more responsive to changes that lead to improved life and outcomes for autistic individuals and their families. Highlighting this shift in focus warrants a newer symbol – one of cooperation and sharing.”

Michael believes projects such as the Gee Vero Inclusion project go more to educating and reframing autism.

Jane Straus, “the puzzle piece is far more applicable in my opinion to NTs (neurotypicals), who seem to expect us to guess what they are thinking. It is inaccurate, in its assumption of boy-blue, and its assumption that we are so impossible to understand. Those of us who can communicate in a way that normals understand are so simple and direct in what we say, that if they would just pay attention we would be not a puzzle at all.”

Andy Dreisewerd, who lives in a restrictive group home, has no love for the puzzle piece logo. In fact, he performed a ritual to destroy the puzzle piece by “using a plastic prop sword and figuratively driving it through the puzzle piece, cutting it in twaine. I did this to free its influence from me and my attention to others’ opinions on things I should do with my spare time, and the type of job I should hold based on how ‘intelligent’ I am.”

Lori Shayew, “I’m not a fan of the puzzle piece. I feel it’s demeaning to autistic people. I like the infinity sign or heart better.. something Autism represents.”

Andrew I. Lerner, “We are not just a puzzle PIECE, and are not missing anything. We do fit in, and we can SPEAK for ourselves! Let us support ourselves, rather than an NT jigsaw organization that is profiting from pitying us. We are all individuals, and need not have the same letters in our name. Show support for us by proudly displaying our A.S. logo.” This is the logo he proposes.

Andrew Lerner logo

April Griffin writes “My pieces aren’t missing and I’m not a mystery.”

Judy Endow writes in Goodnight Autism Puzzle Pieces about how the puzzle piece is now permanently tied in with fear-based messages. “… the fact remains that today public awareness of autism is tied up with the tragedy and fear-mongering put forth by Autism Speaks. Our puzzle symbol no longer stands for any of the good we personally attach to it and, in fact, has become harmful to the very people we wanted to represent – autistic people.”

Alternative ideas for logos were suggested. Sarah Vaughn would like to see a rainbow in the logo. Corrine Tobias likes the butterfly symbol.

One of my favorite organizations, Hidden Wings, uses a butterfly.

Hidden Wings

Carol Ann Acorn uses many pictures in her educational presentations that represent autism.

CarolAnnAcornspectrumimage

Forward-thinking CarolAnn also created this symbol years ago.

CarolAnn Acorn "Celebrate Autism"
CarolAnn Acorn “Celebrate Autism”

On suggestions for alternate symbols, Joanne Lara, Bev Leroux, and April Dawn Griffin like this symbol.

New Autism symbol

April likes the rainbow colors for the spectrum and the infinity sign which is math-related. Many on the autism spectrum have an affinity for math-related symbology.

Janet Sebelius disagrees with this symbol. The infinity symbol is used by the Metis in Canada.

Metis flag

“I feel the autism community has the best and brightest minds on the planet bright enough and creative enough to come up with something original I would love to see it come from within and not remind anybody of anybody else.”

Lori Shayew of The Gifts of Autism and Kelly Green of the Autismhwy.com came up with this symbol.

Gifts of Autism logo

Lori writes “In light of the recent news that the rainbow is not an arc, but a circle. (Thanks for the proof NASA) It’s time to recreate the new model. Colors of the rainbow weaving in motion. We are recognized for all of our colors. For instance, I know a 13 year old girl who is non-verbal (red ray) AND comprehension/writes at high school level in English and Spanish (blue ray) She is also a wiz at math (indigo ray) Because she is non-verbal she is automatically labeled “low functioning”. But, there are hidden gifts that people are missing because they are focusing too much on the “non-verbal” aspect.

It’s time to break down the spectrum (low-mod-high) and allow our innate gifts to bloom and flourish. Don’t we all excel at some things, but not in others? No big deal. We can jump from yellow to red to indigo to green and back again. Maybe then there are no colors, only light.”

Andrea Clark, “As each person in this world is unique, how can one symbol do justice for all?”

James McCue writes, “I hate the missing puzzle piece – I am not missing anything, nor do consider anyone I work with to be less then whole.” James suggests this:

James Mccue puzzle piece

“I think this represents the beautiful chaos that is continually running through my neurology – If I could add motion to it, would be even better – and noises, and smells – but – this will do,” James writes.

Kelly Green states, “Many Allistic [editor note: allistic is a new term for neurotypical] parents like the puzzle piece while many Autistic adults dislike it. I’m trying to honor my Autistic friends. I have existing art with puzzle pieces which I still use minimally (in my Making Friends with Autism coloring books and coloring pages.) I made a promise to my friends that I wouldn’t create any new puzzle piece imagery over a year ago.”

KellyGreenAutisticPride

This was a chalk-art piece Kelly Green created to represent Autistic Pride.

On the side of getting rid of any symbol representing autism Judith Burkes weighs in. “I don’t believe there can be a unifying symbol for a spectrum. If some see it now as one color or another, or a variety of colors, or as limited and separating or unifying and celebrating, how can one symbol cover such a variety of expressions of human existence? And, in the end, do we need to have a/one symbol?”

Oya Dee Gazioglu, “Could a symbol also be construed by others as another limiting label? Or another separation as opposed to the oneness we actually are?”

Marilyn Lauer, a Special Educator in Santa Barbara, asks, “Why a symbol? Does every ‘disability’ have a symbol?”

Some thoughtful organizations are investing in new logo designs. For example, The Celebrate Autism Foundation changed their logo to this.

CelebrateAutism_Logo

Jenny Anderson, founder of Celebrate Autism, states “Celebrate Autism Foundation changed it’s logo from a puzzle piece to a spark. Our organization is about empowering through education & sparking a brighter future for people on the spectrum. Feels like a much better fit!”

In the end, I believe symbols are important, just as words are. The symbol we choose to represent ourselves should reflect our values.

The puzzle piece was created to represent an autism organization, not Autistic people. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network which does reflect the values of many autistic people has chosen this symbol as their logo.

ASAN logo

The fifteen-year old artist Rissa P chalked this at the Covina Autism Chalk Festival on April 18, 2015.

RissapChalkFestival2

(Artwork courtesy of Carissa Paccerelli aka Rissa P. Visit her art on her website.)

I guess that says it all.

45 Comments

  • Thank you for taking time to complete this survey. I agree with your view that “I believe it’s time for parents to listen to Autistic adults about the symbols they prefer. And I agree there may be no universal symbol for all. If parents want a symbol for what it means to be an autism parent, they should create their own symbol… And please don’t include crying children.”

    In addition to the rainbow infinity symbol, I also love Carol Ann Acorn’s ribbon with rainbow stars. Come to think of it, how about an infinity symbol with a bright background colour (maybe royal blue like Carol Ann’s ribbon) and a collection of rainbow stars! Infinity, rainbow stars… that fills my heart with joy!

  • I think the puzzle piece is rather accurate as we “nuero-typicals” have trouble figuring people in the spectrum and they have trouble figuring us out. The puzzle seems to fit as both groups seem to puzzle each other.

  • I dislike the use of any graphic symbol for autism or Asperger’s (which is not on the Autism Spectrum.) “Spectrum” is a way for lazy psychologists to avoid real diagnosis and description of the many conditions lumped together on the “spectrum.” It obscures the actual symptoms and difficulties that individuals experience. Why is “Autism” a better name than developmentally handicapped?” Politically correct nonsense has never helped anyone to function better. Do we want specific individual solutions or cute butterflies and rainbows?

  • First off, stop using the word “autistic”.

    Anyone who is an expert about autism should know that that word should never be used. It is extremely offensive because autism does not define someone. They HAVE autism. They aren’t autistic. You claim that we have come so far about our use of language. Obviously you haven’t.,

  • I am an elementary teacher who came to this site exploring where I could find out more about some students I now teach. I am, frankly, taken aback by the negative labeling of people here.
    What exactly is a “curebie.?” And, I can guess at “neurotypical’s” meaning but Allistic?? I would love to hear from anyone who can shed non-hostile light on these terms. I have hated
    political correctness my whole life. I don’t have much good ju-ju for people who want to sit around and label things for the sake of bitter irony or something that tastes like that. It seems like a big energy suck. Life is too short. But education and enlightenment . . . by all means.

  • My son has autism, or he is autistic. whatever you want to say. How it is worded makes absolutely no difference. My sweet baby still is perfect, yet he lacks the skill to say the four words I long to hear, “daddy, I love you.” I personally don’t care what the symbol is that is used to raise awareness. They could use a purple horses butt. If it helps raise awareness to cut down on the stupidity of the masses, isn’t it worth it? I may be wrong and I am sure someone will point this out to me, but I just want the best for my baby boy and others like him that have difficulties. Yes, difficulties, sorry to say but he and many like him have difficulties in communication, or other functions of life.
    We see a pink ribbon and associate it breast cancer. was pink chosen for a certain reason? Who cares!! It raises awareness.
    Maybe we all should be happy that people associate any type of symbol with autism, I am, it means my wife and I are getting the help we need to best benefit our son.
    Maybe we all should stop taking offense to every little thing and just be happy that someone cares.
    In my humble opinion, I believe autism is a puzzle, just like the human brain, whether it is a “normal (I hate that word) functioning brain” or a brain that may be considered overactive, or under achieving. So the puzzle piece is a good representation of the affliction known as autism.
    Sorry if I offended anyone, certainly not my intention. I do ask that anyone reading this, please say a prayer for my family that we do our best to raise this happy little boy the best way possible and get the best advice in helping him achieve all that is possible.
    Thank you

    • You will find an adult autistic community at Neurodiverse UK on Facebook. We are based in the UK but have manu US members. We welcome autistics, parents, industry workers and educators of all levels from elementayry to PhD and have many in all those categories who participate regularly in discussions. It is not a ‘safe space’, but we admins do teach others to answer questions as we would and the vast majority will fall over backwards to educate you on our communities beleifs, values and language. Usually in a very patient way as we know not everyone gets it straight away. Autistic, remember? Come over, ask your questions with respect and you will (I hope, now I’ve said it!) receive civility in return.

  • Dear Mike Nichols,
    Do not engage with this Dean Whateverthellhisnameis. Unlike 99.9% of all the human beings who, as one part of themselves, live “the autistic life” – that is the least of the problems of Dean. Dean sucked a lemon long, long ago. He has never gotten over it. Now, he just wants you to be as pinched up as he is. He is not worth your precious time. Spend it with your son!
    That sounds like a lovely, sacred relationship. Cheers! M

    • I like to believe that everyone deserves to be loved, and respected. This was instilled into me by my Dad years ago. I am not in Deans shoes so I dont know the circumstances he has been through other than what he has told me. I appreciate His opinion, as I do yours, thank you for seeing through my words and noticing the love I have for all three of my sons. I will find out how good of a job I did raising them when I see how my future grandkids turn out.
      Many thanks to all!!

  • without the puzzle logo i would off never found my self its draw to one with austim so much more so it has to catch our eye in sucess

  • I am an epileptic so I know what some of the world of autism is like. Next I have raised 2 kids that are autistic. I raised them the closest I could to how I was raised- you may be differant in other peoples eyes but to us your just like all the other kids and are expected to act so. In other words my kids were- are special people. I would explain to them and to thier classmates- other autistic kids about the puzzle piece is if you look at it you will see a person. That little guy is blue, sometimes rainbow but he is one person and like in a puzzle you hold each others hands, give each other a hug. You stand tall, be proud of who you are- yes you will make lots of mistakes-but we all do, ,, you just make a few more.
    The idea that you call it a swazstica are a bunch of junk and have no thoughts of what I have been told it stood for. It stands for I am a person, I fit in with the world and sometimes maybe I do need my hand held. You guys who not see that ideal in it wether you are autistic or norm, must have blind eyes. Some of you talk horribly think how did you want to be treated. I am also proud to point out to people what that crazy puzzle peice means umunst all those color ribbons.

  • Keep the puzzle piece! Because like a puzzle piece their all unique in their on way but come together for a bigger picture that everyone can plainly see!

  • Personally I love the puzzle piece. It’s not for everyone and thats fine, but people should not tell others that what it should mean to them. I hate it when people tell me that it can not represent MY autism.

  • Dean your are way to violent for my taste and you are in no way representative of the autistic community. You give no assistance to people looking for help with understanding autism and frankly all the violent ways you describe how you would “deal” with people is appalling. I have autistic friends and raise a child on the spectrum both find comfort in the word. Your argument has no merit. I have a friend who loves to say sorry guys im autistic let me catch up a second when were in big groups and no on bats an eye no one criticizes. He says it helps him get people to understand which is what the puzzle piece is about. Maby take a look at how you are acting before arguing with the world. No one takes your opinion seriously when your talking about cutting off testicles and how it wont end well for people. As the saying goes you attract more with honey then shit.

  • I’m a young adult on the autism spectrum. Personally, I like the puzzle piece because it represents uniqueness and how autism is just one piece of our personhood. I don’t understand maths very well, so the “infinity” symbol makes no sense to me. But that is just me.

  • A friend of mine is a wheelchair user. He has always said that he hates the term “person with a disability” and vastly prefers “disabled person” (which is the opposite of what I think I would prefer). I never pressed him on it, and dutifully changed my language. Secretly, though, I never really understood why…until reading the vitriol being spewed here. But I think I do, now. So, lesson gratefully learned. Perhaps it couldn’t be taught in terms less disgusting.

  • I’m Métis and agree with the person who doesn’t like the affinity symbol used for autism.

    It’s widely used by many people on the spectrum now, and it just makes me sad because that’s my peoples flag and we are a small people and not many hear our words or know we excist. It already means something to the Métis.

    And not all autistics are good at math. I suck at math for example.

    I actually like puzzle pieces. I think they’re cute, and they remind me of, well, puzzles! And problem solving. Which I enjoy doing. I wish we could reclaim the puzzle peice, but it seems the majority of my fellow autistic adults do not wish this.

    So it has to be something else.

    I just hope it’s my the infinity symbol. 🙁

    That’s my cultures flag…

  • I’m Métis and agree with the person who stated they don’t like the affinity symbol used for autism.

    It’s widely used by many people on the spectrum now, and I’ll be honest it annoys me because it already has a meaning to us as our flag; a symbol of unity and a never ending culture. We are a small people and not many hear our words or know we excist. It already means something to the Métis.

    And not all autistics are good at math. I suck at math for example.

    And I actually like puzzle pieces. I love the rainbow multiple puzzle pieces. I think they’re cute, and they remind me of, well, puzzles! And problem solving. Which I enjoy doing.

    I wish we could reclaim the puzzle piece, but the majority of my fellow autistic adults do not wish this.

    So it has to be something else.

    I just hope the next autism symbol isn’t the infinity symbol.

    Because if it becomes popular enough and people see me wearing a Métis pin, they’ll be like “oh autism!” And I’m autistic too, but I don’t want my Métis identity and my autism identity to clash. Ones cultural and the other is neurological.

  • As the world’s best selling jigsaw puzzle artist, I LOVE the puzzle piece symbol.
    WHY? Because I am also an Aspie. I have Aspergers. I do not suffer from ASD because Aspergers in NOT a disorder. It is simply a different way of seeing things.

  • I like the puzzle piece. I was recently diagnosed with autism and I’m 22 years old. Talk about a late diagnosis. I grew up thinking I only had ADD but it turns out I only had part of the puzzle. I was missing a piece of who I really am. I was ignoring the rest of me. And now I’m learning that sometimes puzzles are hard to understand and you can’t finish the picture when you have one piece missing.

    It may sound ridiculous to others but to me it makes sense. To people like me it makes sense. Thankfully there seems to be a lot of people like me and we recognize each other through the puzzle piece symbol. I’m planning on making it my first tattoo. Im not ashamed of my brain for being different, I’m happy now because I understand myself better.

    Also if the puzzle piece changes while I have a puzzle tattoo…well that’s like getting LGBT tattooed in a place where you can’t keep adding letters. People will just think you’re politically incorrect and uneducated. I refuse to be labeled dumb.

  • Hi foks,

    Speaking as an autistic advocate, I would like to introduce those of you who are still getting notifications and those of you who are (re)visiting to the Going Gold campaign. Found here at https://autisticuk.org/going-gold-for-autism-acceptance/.

    I may seem to be blowing my own trumpet a bit here, but I thought this would be relevant to the conversation. This came about from over a year ghosting around and dropping surveys and talking with advocates worldwide, so please give it the consideration it deserves.

    All those consulted on this were autistic and over 7000 responses were considered from surveys. If I get permission from the others in this who are somewhat shyer,including those who are non-verbal; I will put the story and methodology and results into some form of readable format. Until then, we stuck with a simple explanation and an appeal. Thank you for reading.

  • I doubt anyone will even see this little comment or read it. But as an adult woman diagnosed very late as HFASD, I like the idea of a prism casting a rainbow made of puzzle pieces because we all fall on the spectrum and we are all put together together differently on it. Just my humble 2 cents worth as a HFASD single mom of a HFASD little boy.

  • I’m a 73 yo Aspie. I have no issue with the image of a jigsaw puzzle because it reminds me that, even if all the pieces are present, the PICTURE that reveals what it should look like IS missing. And it’s a slightly different picture for all of us.

    The cover image on my Facebook Group sums it up pretty well for me.

    And Dean, if it triggers you in any way, just avoid it, okay? If you view it, it’s a choice, especially now that I’ve told you. People who think that there should be laws limiting freedom of expression like you mention above need to get a grip and understand that ‘being offended’ is a CHOICE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *