Autism infinity symbol vs puzzle piece.
For a long time, and still today, the answer to the “who are we” question was not directed at us. Non-autistic people defined autism and autistic for us. We were told who we are, why we are “like this” and what we should do to “get better”.–Amy Sequenzia
For a majority of autistic adults and teens, the autism infinity symbol vs the puzzle piece is a very important topic. As such, today, with the help of an amazing autistic advocate, Grace Dannemiller, we’ll be diving into this today.
Disclaimer on Language:
At A Heart for All Students, we have a strengths-based lens and our language reflects this.
According to a 2020 study, the majority consensus among the autistic community is a preference for identity-first language such as:
- Autistic or
- autistic person
As such, terms such as person with autism, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) will not be used here.
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Symbols for Autism
Words and symbols have power in our society because their meaning comes from how we use them as individuals and as a society.
There are endless explanations and interpretations for different symbols. In truth, each person’s perspective and life experience add to the different ways we see them.
It’s not the symbol that holds power over us, but its history.
Unfortunately, the cruel history of the puzzle piece symbol is not recognized in our society.
The Origin of Autism Puzzle Piece
Since its creation, the symbol of the autism community has gone through many changes in shape, color, and societal interpretations.
First and foremost, non-autistic people designed the puzzle piece that now claims to define autistic people.
And that means, from the start, the puzzle piece has had a negative connotation towards autism and autistic people.
Let me explain why.
First Draft of the Puzzle Piece
In April of 1963, a non-autistic board member of the National Autistic Society, designed the first draft of the puzzle piece symbol.
Gerald Gasson designed the puzzle piece below emphasizing a distressed and crying child.
This was likely due to his misunderstanding of autism. Regardless, you can see how this paints autism in a negative light.
Negative Connotations of the Symbol of the Puzzle Piece
Helen Allison, a member of the National Autistic Society explained the meaning of the puzzle piece symbol as follows:
“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.”
When you learn from the autistic voices of today, you realize that many of these autistic people have suffered. However, the reason behind the suffering is not autism, but the way they’ve been othered by neurotypical people.
Is it any wonder why autistic people are fighting back against this?
Autism Awareness Ribbon
Later in 1999, the Autism Society of America, another non-autistic-led group, created a new symbol of autism. The autism awareness puzzle piece ribbon.
“The puzzle pattern reflects the complexity of the autism spectrum. The different colors and shapes represent the diversity of the people and families living with the condition. The brightness of the ribbon signals hope… that through increased awareness of autism, and through early intervention and access to appropriate services/supports, people with autism will lead full lives and be able to interact with the world on their own terms.”
The organization clearly had better intentions with its design. However, the negative and distressing feeling of the puzzle piece had already taken root nearly 40 years prior with the NAS.
Fortunately, they recently dropped any form of the puzzle piece citing that they’ve listened to autistic people.
If they’re starting to get this, then why are schools, businesses, and other organizations still perpetuating this sign of oppression against autistic people?
Non-Autistic People Defining Their Own Confusion
Truthfully, in all accounts before 2008, the origins of the puzzle piece never represented autistic individuals being a puzzle.
The symbol instead referred to neurotypical people’s lack of understanding of autism, them being puzzled.
Later, Autism Speaks, considered a hate group by many in the autistic community, went on to use the puzzle piece in some very big Autism Awareness campaigns around America.
As such, this led to the puzzle piece being adopted as “the symbol” for autism and the general public’s primary idea of autism.
Autistic Voices Speak Out
In 2008, articles started circulating heavily opposing the puzzle piece, claiming that it implies autistic people are puzzling and odd.
Then three years later in 2011, Autism Speaks affirmed their concerns when they inadvertently said that autistic people were in fact the puzzle that their puzzle piece logo represented.
In response, Virgina Tech English Professor, Paul Heikler, and Ph.D. candidate, Melanie Yergeau, spoke out against the damage caused by the puzzle piece symbol.
“Puzzle pieces … symbolize so much of what is wrong with popular autism discourse— representing autistic people as puzzling, mysterious, less-than-human entities who are ‘short a few cognitive pieces,’ who are utterly self-contained, disconnected, and [who] need to ‘fit in’”.
Because of this, Autism Speaks lost a lot of respect in the autism community. Ultimately, leaving the country with no mainstream reliable source of information about autism.
Unfortunately, the problem with Autism Speaks does not stop at a loss of respect. In the early 2000s, Autism Speaks produced a number of offensive commercials pathologizing autistic people.
Commercials Symbolizing and Shaming Autistic People
In 2006, they released a commercial entitled “Autism Every Day”.
In it, a mother of an autistic child expresses her desire to kill herself and her autistic child by driving off a bridge. She says all of this with her autistic daughter in the same room.
Learning nothing from the backlash, Autism Speaks produced another commercial in 2009.
In the commercial, “I am Autism”, once again they enforced the use of scare tactics to get people to donate to their cause.
They included comments directly stating that autism ruined families and marriages and is almost curse-like. Autistic people were and continue to be horrified at the disrespect and offensive behaviors of Autism Speaks.
Due to this, and other issues with Autism Speaks, many autistic people see the puzzle piece as an unpleasant reminder of an organization that spent years running public campaigns against them.
The Other Side of the Light Up Blue Symbol
To many in the autistic community, the autism puzzle piece represents negativity about ourselves.
Similarly, Autism Speaks‘ “Light it Up Blue” campaign, often seen around April 2nd (World Autism Awareness Day), is widely rejected by the autistic community.
Despite our expressed discomfort with the color blue, many famous tourist attractions, including The Empire State Building and Niagara Falls, continue to shine blue color lights in support of Autism Speaks.
This has made World Autism Day a day of great discouragement for silenced autistic voices.
Autism Speaks has attempted to rebrand its organization. In 2020 they adjusted the colors and shape of their infamous blue puzzle piece symbol.
Attempting to retain its brand, despite its problematic mistakes, while embracing the shifts in autism advocacy, In the end, it’s ultimately failed to win back the support of the majority of the autism community.
The above infographic was designed by Autistic advocate @autistictruth.
Later, autistic advocates began an ongoing campaign to push a change in language from “Autism Awareness” to “Autism Acceptance.”
This change, like the change of symbol, is one step in the long road to equality, but a step forward nonetheless.
Awareness is not acceptance, and mere recognition is not enough. Inclusion, not just recognition, is necessary to even somewhat achieve the ultimate goal of accessibility.
Progress Forward: Autistic Self-Advocacy Network
In March 2021, the Autism Society of America and other status disability organizations throughout the United States officially announced they had all intents and purposes to refer to April as Autism Acceptance Month instead of Autism Awareness Month.
The Autism Society of America shared in a press release that acceptance is one of the major barriers autistic people and their families face in their search for equality. This campaign also included the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.
ASAN was founded in 2006 and is an organization of autistic-led autism advocates. For clarity, autism advocacy means the organization not only involves autistic voices but is created by them.
From the very beginning, autism advocacy organizations are made by autistic people for autistic people.
Autism Infinity Symbols
C.L. Lynch, an autistic author, says this about the puzzle piece and its use by the Miami Police Department in 2020.
Most of us hate the puzzle piece symbol because we associate both it AND Autism Speaks with attitudes that have resulted in our persecution and mistreatment. In fact, this entire car and political stunt seems to be a shining beacon of miseducation and misunderstanding.C.L. Lynch, Neuroclastic.com
The rainbow infinity symbol’s vibrant colors are associated with neurodiversity because the colors of the rainbow promote positivity and acceptance of diversity.
Rainbow Infinity Symbol
In an effort to support autistic people, The Mighty contributor Amelia Blackwater shared this about the autism infinity symbol vs puzzle piece debate.
The puzzle piece is problematic as it suggests that autistics are a mystery or a puzzle to be solved…Consider the rainbow infinity sign instead. Not all autistics are the same and the rainbow infinity symbol represents that neurodiversity in our community. The infinity sign is a positive symbol within the community.Amelia Blackwater, 7 Ways to Support Autistics During Autism Awareness Month, The Mighty, 2023
Gold Autism Infinity Symbol
To reflect the idea that autism is a spectrum, a new symbol was created.
The new symbol, a golden infinity sign, became the new symbol for autism in February 2018.
The use of an infinity sign represents the diversity of people with autism.
Additionally, the gold infinity symbol is associated with autism because the color gold promotes hope for a brighter future for those with autism.
The Other Side
With that being said, it is important to listen to both sides of this argument and understand that no one person can speak for the entire autistic community. One autistic individual had this to say,
“I’m autistic and I LOVE the puzzle piece (just not blue). It makes more sense than infinity. I only take issue with the blue puzzle piece because it is a symbol for Autism Speaks, which is an organization that seeks to cure autism and views it as a burden and noose around the neck of caregivers.”
Overall, it’s important to lift up the voices of those who are marginalized. And based on the larger group of #actuallyautistic advocates (just google that term), it’s safe to assume that the majority of them do not like the puzzle piece.
How do I know this? We’re desperately pushing for a change in representation.
Autistic-Led Autism Advocacy
Several autistic-led advocacy groups are leading the charge. Those include:
Their missions focus on improving the quality of life and opportunities for autistic people.
Further, they’re often centered on the idea that autistic people are not disabled by their neurodiversity. Rather, they’re hurt by physical and cultural barriers present in our society.
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has referred to the month of April as Autism Acceptance Month since 2011. Additionally, they’ve created their own logo that conveys strength through interconnectedness and diversity.
“ASAN’s work has always been about fighting for our right to be included. We’ve always been strong about promoting inclusive education, inclusive workplaces.”—Ari Ne’eman, ASAN co-founder
Recap: Autism Infinity Symbol vs Puzzle Piece
Since its creation, the symbol of autism has changed shapes, colors, and sizes. Ultimately, each symbol with a subsequent change of interpretation inching closer to the ideals of real autism experts:
Autistic people themselves.
If you’re hoping to support autistic people, please search the hashtag #actuallyautistic.
On the other hand, if you’re autistic, no matter your level of support needs, you are represented, and you are heard.
Every voice counts and any voice can help; please give power to the right words.
A Word from Lindsay: Autism Infinity Symbol vs Puzzle Piece
Sadly, in recent years, I’ve seen many exchanges on social media about the puzzle piece symbol and the rainbow-colored infinity symbol.
Many of them from hostile towards those speaking up about their traumatic experiences as autistic children. Often the vitriol towards autistic voices, people just asking to be heard, are from the parents of autistic kids.
Autistic adults were once autistic children who have grown up under the autism symbol that pushed forth a narrative that led to the oppression and trauma of an entire generation of autistic adults.
It’s time to listen.
In this day and age, after what we’ve learned historically about the oppression of marginalized groups of people, we need to do better.
Please listen to autistic voices about the history of the puzzle symbol, ABA, and what every autistic child wants their parents (and teachers) to know.
Guest Author Bio
Grace Dannemiller is a sophomore at Hoover High School in North Canton, Ohio. She’s currently working as the Copy Editor for the Vikings Views Newspaper.
This past summer she traveled to France with the school.
Grace likes to play guitar and study.