CW: Autism Speaks, ableism, ABA and other “treatments”.
The puzzle piece is arguably the most recognised symbol associated with autism, and has been around for decades. It is also a highly controversial topic in the autism community*, and is becoming increasingly unpopular with autistic people. I touched upon it here a few weeks ago. It has been promoted by many neurotypical-led autism organisations that have shared various questionable interpretations of it, namely:
- Autistic people suffer from a “puzzling” condition (we don’t; we suffer from ableism and lack of support)
- Finding a treatment/cure is a puzzle that needs to be solved
- The pieces of an autistic person’s brain do not fit
Sometimes the puzzle piece will be blue, based on the misconception that autism is a boys’ condition. This is largely associated with Autism Speaks, the leading autism organisation in America – more on that in a bit. Sometimes a symbol will show several brightly coloured puzzle pieces, with the bright colours representing “hope” – for cures and eradication, not support and understanding. Sometimes it will show several interlocked puzzle pieces with one askew or missing altogether. Sometimes the puzzle piece will be on the same ribbon symbol that is used for raising awareness of cancer and other illnesses.
There are still plenty of people – mainly neurotypical, but also autistic – who like the puzzle piece and try to interpret it positively. They might argue that it represents how connected the autism community* is, or how puzzling life can be as an autistic person. Some go as far as to complain about how easily offended its naysayers are. Neurotypicals: please don’t speak over us on issues like this!
Now if its aesthetic appeal or personal interpretation were the only issues at stake, I might be more neutral on it. The issue for me is the ableist history it represents. As I mentioned previously, it is used as a logo for many harmful organisations, namely Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks is widely loathed by the autistic community* for many reasons. Firstly, it is notorious for demonising autism and using scare tactics and pathologising language when describing it to parents. Second, only a small percentage of its funds goes towards supporting autistic people. Third, it has only included one autistic person on its team, and that person left because they were not comfortable with its ethics. Fourth, it has promoted harmful cures, such as bleach and Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA).
To clarify, ABA is a behavioural therapy that aims to eradicate autistic traits in children by rewarding compliance and neurotypical behaviour and punishing resistance and autistic behaviour. Punishments can include anything from withdrawal of attention, food or toys to electric shocks, squirting hot sauce in the eyes and general physical abuse. Needless to say, many people who went through it as children have developed PTSD and other mental illnesses.
I hope it goes without saying that I think we shouldn’t be promoting a symbol that is associated with abuse and discrimination. For a better alternative, there is the neurodiversity infinity symbol – gold for autism, rainbow for neurodiversity as a whole. The concept of neurodiversity is that there are many different brains that are all a part of natural human diversity, and all are equally valid. There is also the gold “Au” symbol, which is shorthand for autism, as well as the symbol for Gold in the periodic table. Either way, we are not missing a piece, nor do we need to be fixed. Save the “cure” mindset for conditions that actually cause suffering, and focus on dismantling systemic ableism instead.
*Autism community = anyone with a connection to autism. Autistic community = autistic people.
Note that this post was partly inspired by an article on intheloopaboutneurodiversity.com, which can be found here.
All images are from Canva.com.
To understand more about autism from the inside, please buy my book: Approaching Autistic Adulthood: The Road Less Travelled. You can find it on Amazon or any UK bookshops such as WH Smiths or Waterstones. Don’t forget to leave a review on Amazon to boost the book’s online visibility. Meanwhile, to find out more about me and my work, please visit my website: Artistic Autistic Grace.