There is much interest and personal opinion surrounding the meaning of the autism puzzle piece. This logo has become synonymous with autism; so much so that over the years this symbol has also been incorporated into the autism awareness campaign.
Many autism organizations around the world have modified and adopted this symbol as their logo. Some are a single blue puzzle piece while others are a collection of multi-colored pieces, but all representing the same thing – Autism.
The origin of the puzzle piece dates back to 1962. It was designed by Gerald Gasson, a parent member of the National Autistic Society.(1) The puzzle piece design was meant to signify the multi facets of autism, it’s complexity, diversity, the misunderstanding of autistic people, of them trying to fit into society and ultimately the missing piece to completely understand all that autism entails.
The complexity of the issues brought on by autism, such as behaviour, communication, and social interaction, were compounded by the fact that little was known about autism spectrum disorder at that time. The puzzle piece symbolized the missing link, the unknown factors in a complex puzzle, desperately trying to fall into place and making it complete.
Their original logo looked like this: the weeping child signifying and reminding us how one suffers from autism.
To give credit to NAS, they have since changed their logo to one that demonstrates unity and inclusion, a positive image that represents both autistic children and autistic adults in the community.
As a parent of a child with autism, the puzzle piece isn’t something that I can whole-heartedly relate with. Personally I don’t see my child as missing a link nor do I see him as a walking puzzle, devoid of a singular piece or many pieces that will ultimately make him “complete” or “normal”.
The problem with the puzzle piece is the assumption and connotation that autistic people are not whole, that their differences make them less than. The belief that being autistic equates to not living a fulfilling life is simply wrong.
There are many autistic people who live very full and meaningful lives. They are independent, they have a social network of friends and yes, contrary to some beliefs, many go on to have romantic relationships, even getting married and having children of their own.
Who is to define what happiness is? Who is to determine ones quality of life more worthy or meaningful than another? What about autistic people that are not fully independent, that will not go on to find a partner or get married? Are they deemed perfect examples of missing a puzzle piece simply because they may never attain these milestones in life? I don’t believe they are.
I don’t believe that a puzzle piece is truly representative of an autistic person, no matter where they fall on the autism spectrum. Even autistic individuals that are non-verbal can still communicate, they have their own personal opinions, they voice their likes and dislikes and they fully experience personal situations in their life just like we experience situations in our lives. That they communicate and experience life differently doesn’t mean that they are missing something.
As diverse human beings, are we not all a unique puzzle? Are we not all different, with our own ideas, thoughts, opinions, dreams, etc.? I’d like to think of humanity as such. I’d like to think that we are all a puzzle piece, colorful and unique in our own right and we each have something to contribute to the bigger picture.
Today we know much more about autism than we did fifty years ago. Today it’s about integration and ensuring a rightful place in society for autistic people. It’s not about forcing change, it’s about acceptance and ensuring proper accommodations are made in order to receive equal rights and opportunities.
Today we advocate for acceptance and understanding autistic people. As a society that knows more, that has evolved into a better understanding of autism, it is time the puzzle piece does the same.
I think I’d like the puzzle piece more if the message behind it was different. If the message was not one of “missing” but rather of “contributing” to this diverse world, wouldn’t that be a more welcoming and positive message?