What's wrong with the puzzle piece?

Written in April 2022

The puzzle piece symbol is associated with autism largely thanks to the use of the symbol by Autism Sp*aks (we commonly obscure the name of this organisation), and it seems to have caught on, featuring in many leaflets, posters and awareness day resources.

The puzzle piece symbol is used because it represents how puzzling we are, and how we just don't quite fit in. In fact, if you look at the logo as Autism Sp*aks uses it, the edge piece is curved, representing exactly how even if we try to fit in, we'll never quite do it. It's also used as a single piece, like it's a missing piece, or a piece that doesn't have a bigger puzzle to fit into.

I'm not going to get too deep into the semiotics of the issue but a puzzle piece does carry connotations of childishness. I'm sure lots of autistic adults, like me, enjoy jigsaw puzzles, but there's something about the piece as a symbol, usually rendered in bright primary colours, that is infantilising when used to represent a community that has members of every age.

I'm not saying that autistic people aren't puzzling. We can be enigmatic to outsiders, but the reality is that neurotypicals are just as puzzling to us as we are to them, so it's hardly fair to pathologize us as the misfits. It is exactly that “labelling” as misfits that we find problematic. We just want to be accepted*, not forever consigned to being people who'll never fit, so that the rest of society doesn't have to bother trying to accommodate us.

Many of us, especially the late diagnosed, try very hard to fit in as a way of protecting ourselves against bullying, mistreatment and even physical harm. Some of us have become so adept at this (masking) that we don't really know who we are, and our mental health suffers greatly as a result. Often, our skill at masking and being able to just about “pass” means we don't get diagnosed until much later in life, and we have been living without the support and understanding that we needed. Taking all this into account you can see why to many of us, the idea that we're still a misfit is upsetting. How would you feel if you we're told you'll never fit in and you'll never really be accepted no matter how hard you try?

If you want to use some kind of visual representation for autism, the eternity symbol (lemniscate) rendered in a spectrum of colours, or in gold, is much better. This symbol represents the Autism/Neurodiversity rights movement and “officially” became the symbol to use in 2018. Gold, rather than blue (“Light it up blue” events only serve to further the myth that autism only affects males) is used because Au is the chemical symbol for gold.

If you are involved in autism awareness raising, please have a look at the links on my resources page for insights from autistic people, or look at my Quora answers. You can also contact me directly if you have a question.


*During Autism Awareness Month you'll see lots of the community using the term “Autism Acceptance Month” instead. While we as a community are light years ahead of society in being aware of, and fully understanding what autism is and what it's like to be autistic there is a lot of catching up to do. However, autism awareness is growing so this is a great time for us to take control of the narrative and ask people to start actually accepting us. Autism Sp*aks, as an organisation, do not accept autism and consistently fail to accept the insight and contributions of autistic individuals.

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