Why I embrace the puzzle piece as a symbol for autism

Baylie Nixon Puzzle Piece earrings

Baylie Nixon incorporates the rainbow infinity symbol and the colorful puzzle piece into her unique jewelry designs

By Baylie Nixon

This month I’d like to showcase my most ambitious piece while discussing a controversial topic in the autism community: the puzzle piece. At first, before I knew the issues surrounding Autism Speaks, I was embracing the puzzle piece in all its entirety while also introducing myself to the rainbow infinity. But as I saw that the puzzle piece can offend some pockets of autistics, my embrace of the symbol was called into question. But after being around both the puzzle piece and the rainbow infinity for quite some time, I have reached a verdict on whether or not I’ll continue to associate with the puzzle piece: the answer is yes.

I do not, however, associate with the puzzle piece that is specific to Autism Speaks. Their puzzle piece is light blue with a flat base, has two inward notches while having an outward notch on the top. That is the puzzle piece I reject because of Autism Speaks. But the more generic symbol—the puzzles that come in light blue, dark blue, red, yellow, and sometimes green—is the symbol I still embrace.

I can understand why some take offense. The origin of the puzzle piece has ableist rhetoric that speaks of “hope” for a cure in a way that can be patronizing. The roots of the puzzle piece are planted in the soils of misunderstanding, unfamiliarity, and maybe even fear. However, the rhetoric  isn’t out of hatred for autistics. I hate to be that person, the person that could be mistaken for justifying past social injustice or playing devil’s advocate at the wrong time, but times were different back then. Sure, “back then” was not a long time ago. But think of all we’ve been through as a society in the 2010’s. It’s not inconceivable that a lot of social change and understanding can happen in less than a decade, especially in the age of the internet and information.

Despite where the autism puzzle piece comes from, the reason I still embrace it has to do with where I think it’s going. Even though the past usage of the symbol labels us as “puzzles to be solved,” I now see it through an entirely different light that can be reclaimed and empowering to our demographic. Instead, each person is the puzzle piece. The whole puzzle is still being put together because we as a community are still forming. We are still establishing a sense of pride, identity, and culture. This formation of people coming together to make something greater than the sum of its parts is akin to puzzle pieces being put together to make a gorgeous picture. We are not to be solved, like the old meaning of the symbol says; we’re doing the solving! As for autism awareness, I also still embrace that cause for the same reasons I still accept the puzzle piece.

Autism awareness originally depicted autism as a tragic affliction that needed said awareness in order to generate a cure. Nowadays when one sees “Autism Awareness,” the word “acceptance” will often pop up with the phrase. This is a huge step forward in the movement, because it means people are becoming aware of what autistics are saying. To me, awareness doesn’t mean “awareness for a cure.” To me, awareness means awareness of our plight. I want people to be aware of the fact that the unemployment rate for autistics—verbal and nonverbal—is staggering. Only 35% of autistics graduate from college, and only 15% of college educated autistics are employed. I want people to be aware that just because our eyes aren’t glued to yours, doesn’t mean we’re not listening. I want people to be aware we are everywhere, and we’ve been expected from birth to accommodate for NT-centric societal expectations; I want people to be aware that meeting those expectations is exhausting. But most of all, I want people to be aware we have a cultural identity of which many of us are very proud. It isn’t all doom and gloom when it comes to autism awareness. It’s a balance of pride, accomplishment, and struggle. We deserve recognition as a legitimate minority group just like other minorities.

In embracing the puzzle piece, and pairing it with the rainbow infinity, both the familiar and the novel symbols of autism and consequentially, neurodiversity, are bridged. It allows people to have a new sense of recognition in what it means to be autism aware. Promoting the infinity by itself has a revolutionary ring to it; something that stands out from the status quo. But promoting the infinity with the puzzle piece allows people to make faster connections and comprehension of what the infinity means. It’ll allow the rainbow infinity and its significance spread faster, becoming a widely recognized icon in society.

I wish to reflect the unification of both symbols in my latest piece: a double stranded necklace where the shorter strand has autism puzzle charms on each side, and the centerpiece is the autism pride flag with a rainbow infinity in the front. The strands are made with paper and wood beads, painted and glossed in great detail. You can find it for sale here at Bao Treasures on Etsy. I also sell earrings that have both the rainbow infinity and heart puzzle charms to dangle.

Baylie Nixon Bao Treasures

Baylie Nixon Bao Treasures

 

***

The Art of Autism encourages people to purchase art and gifts made and sold by autistic people for the holidays. Much of the art on this website is for sale. Email info@artautism.com if you like a piece and we will contact the artist.

Baylie NixonMy name is Baylie Nixon, I am 24 years old, and I am currently living with my family while I volunteer for an organization called Living Opportunities and study in post-bacc school. I am on the autism spectrum, diagnosed with Aspergers before the DSM V was published, and have been a strong advocate for autistic inclusion since I was a junior in high school. My activism really took off during senior year of high school when I did my senior project on neurodiversity, and then later in college I was in charge of a neurodiversity club for a year.

I recently graduated from Oregon State University with a BS in Pre-Clinical Lab Science, and I am currently enrolled in further education in order to be certified as a medical technologist. I have lived in Southern Oregon for half my life, while also having lived in Forest Grove to go to Pacific University for a couple years, spending another couple back home at Southern Oregon University, then finally finishing my bachelor’s in Corvallis. I am absolutely in love with the biomedical sciences, and am excited to put my knowledge and passion to good use. I am also an Etsy jeweler, my shop is called “Bao Treasures,” and its logo is a rainbow bird. I have been making jewelry for roughly half my life.

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  • I appreciate your stance on the jigsaw piece. Autism Speaks is not very well known in the UK. We have the National Autistic Society here. Anyway, before I was aware of the Autism Speaks I had seen the puzzle piece being used. It didn’t offend me then. It was only it association with Autism Speaks that changed my opinion of it. Taking it and reworking it in a positive way is a good thing. I like that you’re doing that. Nice work.

Leave a Reply

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