The Ableist History of the Puzzle Piece Symbol for Autism

The puzzle piece is the most commonly recognized symbol for autism awareness. But many people are unaware of it’s ableist history.

On World Autism Awareness Day (April 2nd) , many neurotypical people show support and spread “autism awareness” for their autistic family members and friends by displaying the puzzle piece ribbon, wearing puzzle piece pins, and put puzzle piece stickers and decals on their car bumpers and windows. But one question is commonly forgotten; what do autistic people themselves think of the puzzle piece symbol?

While there are some autistic people who may identify with the puzzle piece, a large majority of autistic people don’t. Not only was the puzzle piece symbol used without input from the autistic community, but it has been used to stigmatize and dehumanize autistic people for decades, and continues to be used in this manner today. Despite overwhelming opposition for the puzzle piece symbol by autistic people, it remains the most commonly used and recognized symbol for autism.

The origin of the puzzle piece symbol for autism came from the United Kingdom organization, the National Autistic Society in 1963. It was created by Gerald Gasson, a board member for the National Autistic Society. He and the rest of the board believed that autistic people suffered from a “puzzling” condition, so they adopted a logo of a puzzle piece with a weeping child, displaying the notion that autism is a tragedy that children suffer from. This visualization of autism has led to decades of autistic people receiving unwanted treatments and therapies to treat a disease that they don’t have.

In 1999, the Autism Society of America created the puzzle piece ribbon as a symbol of autism awareness. The Autism Society stated that, “The puzzle piece pattern reflects the complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition. The brightness of the ribbon signals hope – hope that through increased awareness of autism, and through early intervention and access to appropriate services/supports, people with autism will lead full lives able to interact with the world on their own terms.” But hope in this context, through “increased awareness of autism, and through early intervention,” usually means through increased research of cures and treatments for autism, and through early interventions, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis, that seek to “correct” autistic behaviors by forcing autistic people to mask their autism.

Today, the most recognized use of the puzzle piece is through the organization, Autism Speaks, who popularized the symbol. Since the organization was founded in 2005, they have used the puzzle piece logo to spread autism awareness. Even today, the puzzle piece logo of Autism Speaks can be seen on it’s website, in advertisements and public service announcements, on T-shirts, on pins NBA coaches wear in April, and in their Autism Walks. Autism Speaks said in a statement that, “The blue Autism Speaks puzzle piece has had a huge influence on raising awareness of autism around the world, which is why we believe it is still a worthy and effective logo. It represents the search for answers that will lead to greater understanding and acceptance of people on the autism spectrum, their diverse challenges, abilities and strengths.” The “search for answers” that Autism Speaks refers to is the search for cures and treatments. Autism Speaks has previously called autism a disease, and has said statements such as, “This disease has taken our children away. It’s time to get them back,” and have called autistic people “burdens” and “tragedies,” and has called autism itself an “epidemic.” In their“I am Autism” advertisement, Autism Speaks made statements such as that autism “robs children of their dreams,” and that autistic children “live behind a wall.” The puzzle piece is also blue, a color chosen because males receive more formal diagnoses of females, which implies that autism only appears in males or that males are “more autistic” than females are.

Autistic people reject the puzzle piece symbol for multiple reasons, but the main reasons are that it is infantilizing, it promotes the mentality that autistic people are incomplete or are missing puzzle pieces, and it treats autism as a disease that needs to be “treated” or “cured.” The primary colors of the autism awareness ribbon supports the misconception that autism is something that only appears in childhood, and autistic adults are largely ignored in the conversation about autism. The puzzle piece symbol carries mantras such as, “Until all the pieces fit,” or “Until the puzzle is complete,” which translates to until there is an answer, treatment, or cure for autism. The puzzle piece implies that autistic people have something wrong with them or “missing” in their brains or functioning.

In protest of the puzzle piece symbol being used for autism, autistic self-advocates have used sayings such as, “People, not puzzles,” “I am not a missing piece,” and a common saying in the disability community, “Nothing about us without us,” as the puzzle piece symbol was made without the involvement of autistic people. More autism-positive symbols, including the rainbow infinity loop for neurodiversity, was made by autistic advocates such as Judy Singer, who coined the neurodiversity term and promoted the social model of disability at a time when even less was publicly known about the needs of autistic people.

So, what should we do with the puzzle piece symbol? Some autistic people may choose to repurpose or reclaim the puzzle piece symbol to have a more positive meaning about the interconnectedness of the autistic community. A majority of autistic self-advocates choose to scrap the symbol altogether due to its extensive ableist history, and this is what I choose to do myself. No matter how I try to change the puzzle piece into something more positive for autism, I have to acknowledge that its history has been tainted by large autism organizations run by nondisabled, neurotypical people that claim to speak for autistic people. I think that no matter what, organizations should seek the opinions of autistic people before neurotypical autism “experts” on matters that affect them, such as the imagery and symbols they decide to use to represent an entire marginalized group of people.

If you want to use a more positive symbol for autism in April or any month of the year, use the symbol for autism acceptance rather than awareness, or that of neurodiversity (the rainbow infinity loop, or the gold infinity loop for autism acceptance). The color gold is another positive color for autism rather than blue. The color blue is used by Autism Speaks to promote the idea that autism is primarily for boys and is the color of their puzzle piece logo. The color gold is from the periodic element “Au” which is shorthand for autism, and some autistic people choose to go “gold” for autism instead of participating in Autism Speaks’ “Light it Up Blue” campaign. Other autistic people may choose the color red or participate in the social media campaign #RedInstead. This campaign was originated by autistic activist, Alanna Rose Whitney in 2015 with the hashtag #WalkInRed as an alternative to the “Light It Up Blue” Autism Speaks campaign, and was later rebranded to #RedInstead to be more inclusive of people with physical disabilities. Red continues to be a color to support acceptance for autistic individuals in April and throughout the year as an alternative to the blue color used by Autism Speaks. Some autistic people use crimson gold, combining the red and gold colors used for autism acceptance.

To support and properly represent autistic people, ask them first what language, symbols, and terminology they prefer before asking neurotypical people. Be aware of how symbols can support ableist notions, such as characterizing autism as something that needs to be treated or “cured.” And the next time you see a puzzle piece for autism, remember its ableist history to prevent it from being used in an ableist manner.

127 thoughts on “The Ableist History of the Puzzle Piece Symbol for Autism

  1. What if I as an Aspie or Autistic Person (vs being a person on the Autism Spectrum) believe that the world puzzle is not complete without ALL of the pieces? What if I believe that all the pieces of said puzzle should be understood and appreciated for their contribution? I am not broken. I operate with a different operating system than the majority. If all of us thought and operated the same then how would out of the box problems be solved? I can easily complete some tasks that drive most of my neurotypical friends into a panic. Am I better than them? I can do some things more easily than they can. They can do other things more easily then I can. I like to park my car in angled parking spots in a parallel parking universe. I appreciate the lesson. I want a symbol that will be recognized by others as they approach me from behind so they realize that “standard” communicating processes (grabbing an arm, shouting at me because I have on headphones and earplugs they assume are also amplifiers, or some other exaggerated gesture that will startle me. I will not exclude myself from society. I know I can find ways to mainstream without masking who I am or being ashamed for being broken or less than another which I am not.

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    1. I was diagnosed as an adult “Aspie” after raising 3 sons on The Spectum. I saw myself in each of my children as I had to watch them struggle and learn how to live in a neuro-diverse world. I remembered many times feeling like I never “fit in” anywhere as I watched and tried to help my sons work through their struggles with social situations. I remember saying how I often felt like a square peg in the proverbial “round holes” of society. So when the puzzle piece symbolism came about, I understood it and liked it. For me, it symbolized that although I am different, and may not fit in my current social situation, job, etc; that there is a place for me with a “perfect fit” because no puzzle piece is made that doesn’t “fit” somewhere. I like the bright primary colors that are used in the puzzle piece. To me, it signifies all kinds of people, just as every color in the universe is made from 3 primary colors. The possibilities are limitless. I’ve come to believe that folks on the Spectrum, like me are created in a unique way, just like snowflakes and puzzle pieces… We are made by our Creator to fit somewhere.

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      1. Our project emphasizes inclusion — all ages, all abilities, all kinds of minds — because cause-and-cure conversations don’t address the here-and-now. Check out our website for this unique, inclusive experience in nature for all!

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      2. Using words and symbols to label people or groups is done for the purpose of Marketing a message. It is and will always be an incomplete representation because words and symbols are limiting by their very nature. They are used to simplify and push a message out for mass consumption. The human condition is deep, complex and spiritual. Truth is words and symbols will always fall short, be inadequate and misrepresent. Today, because of the internet’s power to spread a message quickly we use words and symbols to turn everything into “sound bytes” and “labels”. It is inadequate and unfair. Understand that replacing one Marketing message for another is not where the answers lie to deal with complexity and nuance.

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    2. I Love the puzzle piece symbol. My belief is that every person on the planet has something to offer, no matter Their background or circumstance and I see Myself and Everyone and Everything as being a missing piece to the the greater puzzle of life’s meaning! ❤️

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  2. As an autistic person myself, my stance is, I don’t like the singular blue puzzle piece used by Autism Speaks. However, the multicolored puzzle ribbon that has existed longer? I rather like it, quite honestly. I used to own a puzzle ribbon lapel pin in the past and wore it proudly. And I will again, hopefully in the near future. I am a staunch neurodiversity advocate, but I just don’t feel the infinity symbol suits me. But the puzzle does. I respect everyone’s thoughts about it. But the puzzle symbolizes myself so much better.

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    1. My 13 year old son has severe issues, especially with self injury and has been diagnosed with autism for the past 10 years. I am very puzzled as to what the heck causes him to beat himself up! No doctor can explain it or stop it. Can you?

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  3. I just want to say that, as someone who is legally diagnosed with autism, that I prefer the puzzle piece, and that I actually find the new, infinity symbol more offensive. The puzzle piece reminds me that I’m not broken, and in the tough times I can be put back together. For me, the infinity symbol reminds me of being stuck in a never ending loop, unable to break free of my problems. That is my perspective on this and how I feel. Anyone else could have a different take on each symbol, but as I said, the infinity symbol triggers me more.

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  4. Whether you identify with the puzzle piece or not, the variable that matters is How Neuro-Normative Society perceives it. And while they may be quick to feign solidarity with whatever symbol is in front of them, this one is not Helpful. The semiotics of it send sub-text messages of a ‘few cards short of a deck’. And this impacts ones ability to fluidly move through society. You are now expected to Appear broken. To appear as someones expectations of disabled or less than coherent. And if you don’t, there’s no being puzzled. To a hard-wired NT, you might simply instead, appear to behave sociopathic or lazy or entitled. Why? Because a puzzle piece by itself is this missing ‘orphan element’ from an enclosing object. If it’s found isolated, it is clearly out of place. A puzzle piece not in its box or in its slotted location inside a collective is an out-of-order / out-of-place element. Now, perhaps in the 60’s while psychology still identified the Autist as Schizophrenic, while Laing and Guattari were recognising some individuals would thrive only when given breathing space from society – in a sanctuary, we didn’t have all the correct theories. And AYE, as a doctor of sorts, I was missing something from my ‘formula’ or my understanding of how these individuals functioned. But then Lacan had already positioned that Autists, for whatever reason, had difficulty with defence mechanisms. Freud had laid the groundwork for said defence mechanisms which included NT / Neurotic suppression of desire in order to behave ‘mature’ through a sort of societal exchange of debt/guilt. This should be information enough. By 1980 very real theories were being set in motion that made grounded and reasonable sense of why some humans weren’t fitting into our unethical structures within society. There’s little excuse for projecting my inability to understand a thing on to another (The Puzzle Piece) and hinder their ability to be perceived with dignity by society. The pragmatics of the infinity symbol literally suggest anything is possible. There are an infinite number of connexions – boundlessness. And while this loop might feel like the continual birth, life, death, re-birth of nature or the continual expansion/contraction in the Order of the Universe, it doesn’t take but a moment to re-think the practical functions of these 2 symbols.

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  5. As an educator, I too used to wear a puzzle piece ribbon, but when I dug deeper into the history of oppressive measures taken by organizations who use the puzzle piece as their logo, I could no longer use the puzzle piece, certainly not for my child or me. as an Autistic Adult. When we know better, we do better. A large part of why the puzzle piece is so concerning for me is this: If we use the puzzle piece, and try to say it represents us, then we are also giving voices to organization who have used the puzzle piece for decades and these organizations do not employ, speak for or actually have the real interests of the community as their priority. They primarily employ and listen to NT’s (parents and professionals) and have ‘ambassadors’ who are often volunteers who are themselves Autistic. They are pawns, and many who try to form bridges with these organizations end up getting tossed to the curb (even as volunteers), if they do not support the mandates of the organizations (the ones who are actually supposed to be speaking for them!). By supporting the puzzle piece, one would become complicit in that act, one would be complicit in giving credence to the organizations (and their history) which have not and do not speak for Autistic voices.

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