Autism Acceptance – Why You Should Ditch The Puzzle Piece Symbolism

Hello all. Autism Acceptance Month is coming to a close, and I had a few more thoughts I wanted to share.

I am a puzzle junkie, and I do jigsaw puzzles frequently, especially during the pandemic. I must have done 20 puzzles this year.

So I love a good puzzle. I love a bad puzzle, even, because I like the challenge. If there is a puzzle around, I want to do it – if there is a puzzle piece design on a product, I want to buy it. I love a puzzle piece motif.

But one place I do not like a puzzle piece is as a representation of autism.

This is the last puzzle I did. I did not know there was going to be a missing puzzle piece. I did not plan on doing a blue puzzle this month. I did not know that people suspect Albert Einstein had autism. It all just kind of fell into place.

Why Puzzle Piece Symbolism is Bad

Think about this for a second. It’s not that hard to comprehend why it might be offensive, but still, the puzzle piece symbolism persists. Click here to learn more.

There are many reasons it can be seen as offensive. Let’s explore that a little.

Autism Is Not Puzzling

The original use of the puzzle piece symbolism was from Society for Autistic Children in 1963. It was adopted because autism is “puzzling,” and because autistic people have a hard time fitting in. They put a picture of a crying kid in the puzzle piece further showing the isolation, and also to show that autistic people suffer.

This was supposed to be a symbol of hope

I like to believe we know a lot more now, and that we are more accepting. This particular society has learned and changed their logo, but the puzzle piece symbolism is still being used elsewhere. We will talk about “elsewhere” in a moment.

Not All Autistic People Enjoy Puzzles

There is something very calming about puzzles to me – I understand the draw of them. There is a specific, repeatable end goal that you are constantly working towards. I like how my brain continues to solve the puzzle even when I am away from it. I like how doing puzzles trains my brain to hold different kinds of information at once. I really enjoy how I have gotten better at doing puzzles over the years.

These are things that anyone can enjoy, no matter their place on the neurodiversity spectrum. But also, you might not enjoy it, no matter how you identify.

I have been told by autistic people that when they were kids, it was seen as a negative thing if you liked playing with puzzles by yourself. The reason being that it might mean you have autism. I’ve said it before and I will say it again — there is nothing negative about autism.

I am not autistic, but I can imagine if my situation was slightly different, I might have been taken to be evaluated for whether or not I was autistic. I can see the scenario unfolding where autism is ruled out and the adults involved say, “Oh, good. No autism.” That just makes me sick.

Arthur, George, and Carl
This episode says aspergers, but never mentions autism. Still worth a watch.

God Bless Marc Brown and Arthur. This episode came out in 2010, and I think it actually did a fairly good job at explaining what it might feel like to be autistic, especially for the time. Props for the scene where Brain explains what his uncle told him it feels like. I especially like how Brain says explains his specific uncle’s experience, and how it felt for him, not how it must feel for all autistic people. Furthermore, the message of acceptance and equality is there, like when George says he is learning as much from Carl as the other way around.

Still, the episode is a little clunky and a little cringey. George narrates the tale, stating that their friendship all started with a puzzle piece. The puzzle piece is part of the story – ending with Carl making his own puzzle piece to replace the missing one. That is not terrible, but it’s not great, either.

Puzzles are Infantilizing

I have heard a lot of autistic people don’t like how puzzles are associated with early developmental stages. I understand how difficult that is — because teenagers and adults with autism are so often infantalized and socially neutered.

I can also understand why this is troubling because autism is often defined as something that only affects children.

Autism Doesn’t Need To Be Cured

Autism doesn’t only affect children. This is tied to the false idea that autism can be “cured” or that autism needs to be “dealt with” with early intervention. It is thought of as something that can be outgrown.

There is so much bad with this sentiment, and it is reflected in actions, behaviors, and ideas of even well-meaning people.

Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy

I’m not that well-versed in ABA. I don’t want to try to explain what it is or how it works, and I suggest you do some research on it yourself. From my understanding, it is a reward/punishment system to coax children to behave more neurotypically. I am sure it is more nuanced than that, and that it may even be a real benefit for some people.

What I can speak to is my gut reaction experience watching The Speed Cubers on Netflix. I bawled the entire movie. From beginning to end. I should actually watch it again because I must have missed a lot of the story while crying.

There is a scene where Max’s parents observe Max mirroring the other contestants, and they had an emotional celebration of that on top of him succeeding in his sport.

His parents are the stars of the movie for me. They are lovely people, and lovely parents. That scene hit me so hard. It is obvious that this is what they lovingly researched and these moments were what they were told to celebrate. It was what they were supposed to identify as “progress.” Then, it was what the movie makers focused on as “progress.” It further teaches every person who watches that movie what they are supposed to celebrate, too.

But why is it celebrated? What is wrong with Max doing things the way he feels is right intrinsically? It is difficult, because I know everyone involved was so well-meaning, but it seems the societal ethos led them in the wrong direction. Again, I’m not an expert, but non experts are a vital part of society, too.

Nothing is Missing From An Autistic Person

Using a puzzle piece symbol implies there is something missing. Saying something is missing from a person is saying they are incomplete. It implies they are less than the complete people.

I might might accept the puzzle piece symbolism if the puzzle represented that we as a society have a space for autistic people, and autistic people fit perfectly into that space, but I have never heard it explained that way. And I would be happier if we didn’t try to push the puzzle piece symbol. We can just stop associating it with autism and just associate it with puzzles.

@utism $peaks $ucks

Letting go of the puzzle piece association is extremely important, because it is associated with Autism $peaks.

Most autistic people who dislike the puzzle piece do so because of it’s association with this organization . All of the questionable ideals, and all of the incorrect information that I’ve mentioned so far has been touted and spread by them. It still is — even though they have faced a ton of criticism and even have revamped their messaging, they still suck so much.

They used a blue puzzle piece to show that autism affects only boys. That idea is incorrect, and it also makes it much more difficult for girls to get diagnosed. When the organization got push back about that, they changed their symbol to include a tiny bit of pink. Like, seriously, go look at it. It’s barely there. Changing it in that way is more offensive because it still pushes their beliefs.

Remember when I said some people think autism needs to be “dealt with” with early intervention. For a long time “early intervention” to them meant to do research to prevent autistic people from being born. It is eugenics.

When you hear this, it can seem like this must have happened a long time ago, and now the charity must be better. That is certainly the narrative they push in newer advertising. But this organization was founded in 2005. That’s not that long ago. It was founded around the same time The Office premiered. They really only started making changes in 2016, when they dropped the word “cure” from their mission statement. But they still focus on causes and treatments and “intervention.” So what really is the difference?

Have I mentioned they suck?

What to use instead

A rainbow infinity symbol. This represents completeness, and diversity.

More importantly, be like George and become friends with more autistic people. Listen to what they have to say and start to understand what their beliefs and needs are. Open up to them about what your needs are. That is way more important than anything else.

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