Editor’s Note: We would like to thank all the readers who expressed enjoyment in our series on The Puzzle Piece. (Most of the articles can be accessed here.) The majority of our guest contributions felt it was time to “retire” the puzzle piece as a symbol for autism. Despite our requests, we were disappointed that only one person on the spectrum stepped forward to write a positive view of the puzzle piece. We ask ourselves why so few came forward?
Puzzle pieces are synonymous with Autism Spectrum disorders. We have buttons, pins, and banners covered in the puzzle piece image. This image has become so entwined with autism awareness, that many people are not aware of the origins of this symbol or why it is controversial. To understand, we must look back over half a century to when Autism Spectrum Disorders were less understood.
The puzzle piece imagery was first used back in 1963 by the National Autistic Society. The society was founded by parents in London, England to gain support for their children. Back then, the term ‘autistic’ was not commonly used and these children instead were labeled as ‘psychotic‘ or having ‘childhood schizophrenia’. The puzzle piece was first implemented by the Society because it did not bear resemblance to any other charitable organization. This individuality was exactly what the society wanted to spread their message of awareness. The reason why the puzzle piece is considered controversial by some lies in the rational for using this imagery.
From the website of the National Autistic Society:
“The puzzle piece is so effective because it tells us something about autism: our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in’. The suggestion of a weeping child is a reminder that autistic people do indeed suffer from their handicap.
If, in the future, we can invest in our Society even more thought, effort and commitment, our puzzle piece will, at least in this country, become no longer just a logo on a letterhead but a symbol of hope for autistic people and their families.”
The different colors sometimes seen on the pull piece represent the diversity of those on the autism spectrum. The imagery of the puzzle piece has changed over the course of time now resulting in a more common puzzle piece ribbon. One of the things that has not changed is the meaning behind the puzzle piece used so frequently. It is true, we are still unaware of what definitively causes autism. However, self-advocates highly object to the way autism is described and the idea of ‘suffering’.
Just like the Autism Society of America, the National Autistic Society was a grassroots organization founded by parents who wanted the best for their children. Now, these children have grown up and are speaking for themselves. Self-advocates can communicate their needs in a variety of ways and can live full independent lives. With the increase in awareness, improvements to supports, and a better understanding of the potential of autistic adults we are in a different place compared to when the National Autistic Society began.
Another reason self-advocates object to the use of the symbol is because the idea of a ‘puzzling’ condition is offensive to some. Some advocates take the meaning to be that others view those on the autism spectrum as ‘missing’ something as many times the puzzle piece symbol is incomplete and missing at least one part. Self-advocates do not feel they are incomplete or mysterious. If fact, many say if you have questions about autism the best people to ask are self-advocates.