Puzzle Piece as a Symbol Of Autism: Critics

When you look for an image describing autism and autism awareness, a puzzle piece immediately appears. So why do we use this symbol? What is the history of this symbol that we think describes autism? Why has this symbol been preferred by associations, parents of children with autism, and autism activists?

First of all, “what does it gain us to know?” let’s talk about these:

  • If you want to understand or change your perspective on autism, you should know that the symbols you choose also have content. You should realize what the symbols mean, why that symbol is accepted.
  • The symbol is not a simple indicator. There are deep discussions and the history behind it. You should know that each symbol carries different content and can create a situation where different perspectives conflict.
  • Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the symbol is here, what it matters, the situation seen as a simple choice; It can reflect our unconscious anxieties up to our relationships with our children and the forms of education and therapy we choose.


The Story of the Puzzle Piece


The first use of the puzzle piece as a symbol of autism was by the Autistic Children Association (NAC), which was founded in England in 1963 by the parents of children with autism. This logo was created by Gerald Gasson, a parent and board member at the association.

The association board, which chose the logo, explained that when they looked at the situation of “autistic” people, their situation was full of unknowns like a puzzle and that they saw autism as a kind of riddle and found the problems “astonishing”. The logo was also suitable for charitable use. It did not look like any other image used for commercial purposes in any way. It had not been used elsewhere.

The association’s first logo had the image of a crying child inside the puzzle piece. The crying child was used as a reminder of people with autism that they are suffering from their condition. The uncertainty is a part of a whole, which could not fit in its container due to social differences, pointed to a painting completed when it was replaced.



People with developmental differences were defined as mentally disabled in the 1960s. People with cerebral palsy were called spastic. In those years, the word “autistic” was used instead of “individual with autism”. Children with autism were thought to be psychotic and were diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia. Especially mothers with children with autism were seen as “refrigerator mothers”. Therefore, in those years, the “puzzle piece” in the sense of deficiency, disorder, a lost piece, uncertainty, and autism that seemed like a riddle, fit perfectly. It could explain the situation perfectly.

The puzzle piece also helped autism-related activists understand their situation. Puzzle pieces have since been included in logos and promotional materials of many organizations, including the Autism Association of America and Autism Speaks. It is possible to see this symbol, which is the most recognized in autism, as an “autism awareness” strip that contains red, blue, and yellow puzzle pieces. It is still the symbol that comes to mind when autism is mentioned all over the world.

Well, then what happened when autism rights advocates started to oppose this symbol, thinking that metaphors such as “puzzle” and “incomplete” harm people with autism spectrum disorder?



According to David Mandell, editor of the University of Pennsylvania Journal of Autism Studies, what caused the change in the logo was a separate research topic.

The criticism and objections of some autism activists against the puzzle logo caused the issue to be discussed in the Journal of Autism Research. Editors of the magazine contacted Kabie Brook. Kabie Brook, on the other hand, is an autism-related activist who lives in Scotland, thinks the logo of the puzzle piece needs to change, and conducts studies and researches on this subject. With her statements, Brook paved the way for the necessity of making this change. According to her, we have passed from the time we started using the puzzle piece to a time of modernization and the puzzle piece no longer fits the needs. Instead, she argues, it is time to use something more current and less aggressive.

Upon these statements, the magazine expressed the long-standing concerns of self-advocates, who expressed the problems caused by the puzzle piece image in its new issue. The editors of the magazine decided to use different images and explanations and adjusted their perspective.

They seriously criticized the idea of the puzzle piece. They said it was nourished by a view that saw autism as a problem to be solved, or that it evoked the idea that people with developmental disorders were somehow deficient. Moreover, they said that symbols such as puzzles are also for children who normally complete their development and that it continues to be wrong to limit the symbol to children only.



After all these criticisms and discussions, the editors of the magazine published a statement announcing the change. They stated that the puzzle is no longer suitable for autism, or even a symbol for autism. Leaving the puzzle piece and starting to use a new symbol isn’t just about how they choose to represent autism. They aim to represent a wider change. Together with Brook, the magazine’s editors, researchers, advocates, and designers (with and without autism) agreed on the new cover art.

In 2017, Autism Research Journal concluded that the use of the puzzle piece feeds the negative perception of people with autism, and the image evokes negative connotations. In February 2018, the magazine removed the puzzle piece from the magazine covers.

Critics of the use of the puzzle piece symbol argue that instead of the puzzle piece symbol, a rainbow-colored infinity symbol should be used to represent diversity. According to Michael Leventhal, although the aim of the puzzle piece is positive, it is no longer sufficient to represent its purpose. While autism was a mystery in the past, it is no longer a mystery today. As efforts towards the causation of autism continue, the main focus is on applying what we have learned to make society and institutions more susceptible to changes that lead to better lives and outcomes for individuals with autism and their families. He argues that a newer symbol should be used to draw attention to this change in focus. This symbol guarantees cooperation and sharing.

Many autism activists with autism have chosen to use this symbol instead of a puzzle piece. Judy Endow has written in Goodnight Autism Puzzle Pieces about how the puzzle piece is permanently connected with horror-based messages. She argued that the puzzle piece symbol no longer indicates any good we add to ourselves and actually harms the people we want to represent, namely people with autism. Andrea Clark, on the other hand, emphasized that every person in this world is unique and questioned how the puzzle piece symbol can emphasize this uniqueness for everyone.



What Is Meant by “I’m Not a Puzzle Piece”

  • I am a human – I have no missing parts. I don’t need to be put together or fixed. Even people with autism who display very little functional behavior are still people and need not be corrected. Let them be trained, yes. Get treated, yes. But having a disability doesn’t make you less than a human being, even if that disability means you can’t express your personality very well.
  • The “mystery of autism” is no deeper than the mystery of any other disorder whose mechanism we do not yet fully understand. (Not schizophrenia, Tourette, or diabetes). This is not enough to justify the use of puzzle pieces to symbolize autism.
  • A communication barrier between a person with autism and a person without autism means that the thoughts of a person with autism are generally unknown. In other words, there is no such thing as a “puzzle” for a person without autism. These thoughts not only lead to uncertainty as to the unknown but also support the unknowable and increase the pain. Filling the void requires more effort from both sides, but it can be done. When they don’t understand you in a foreign country, it doesn’t mean you are mysterious and incomprehensible. Although others may think you are like this. Every behavior shown there makes sense. Even screaming is a way of communication. Even in a totally nonverbal way one understands what warmth and comfort mean.


First of all, rainbow refers to a spectrum of colors just like the autism spectrum, that is, the variety and difference of colors. It is seen that autism expresses diversity beautifully as a “spectrum”. While the symbol of infinity also represents a mystery like a puzzle piece, it is not a more obscure, unknowable mystery like a puzzle piece, but rather an infinite variety that is constantly moving forward and a sufficiently unknown quantity. It appears as a situation in which it is seen as possibilities, opportunities, and diversity. It refers to the infinite variety of possibilities of mathematics, which includes a more positive, constructive, and creative process.

Most importantly, when you think of infinity, you often encounter undefined quantities, that is, variables that have no definition. But the good thing about these variables is that if you study them correctly, you can define them once again. You focus on the process instead of the symptoms, and you go towards a perspective that constantly renews itself and produces opportunities rather than deficiencies. It contains the potential for an infinite variety of life opportunities in today’s quantum world. It reveals the human right to choose.

Instead of looking for the location of what is missing, you begin to see what you have as color and begin to be interested in the infinite variety of places that color. Most autism activists today reflect this by saying, “I would rather be a rainbow eternity symbol than a puzzle piece.” However, we can see that the autism puzzle symbol dating back to the 1960s still appears. Why is this going on?



Autism Speaks, one of the most powerful autism organizations in the world, has been using this symbol as a symbol since its foundation in 2005 and continues to use its logo everywhere from public service announcements to sports events for coaches and lapel pins. They stated that they had no plans to move away from the visual.

Autism Speaks say that autism is like a puzzle, that it is necessary to combine the parts in order to see the main picture and not to forget the details. They state that each child is unique by saying that we are all different like puzzle pieces. They say that everyone’s puzzle pieces are also different from each other.

In another statement they made, they stated that they believe that the blue puzzle piece has a great effect on raising autism awareness in the world, so it is still a valuable and effective logo. This represents the search for answers that will lead to greater understanding and acceptance, different challenges, abilities, and strengths of people on the autism spectrum. That’s why they continue to use this logo.



PinMart Autism Awareness Multi-Color Puzzle Piece Enamel Lapel Pin


If you have someone with autism in your family or around you, or basically want to support autism or raise awareness, it is the perfect pin for you. It looks exactly like in the picture. It is in a perfect size, not too big or not too small. It is small but big enough to be noticed by people around you. It is a great way to show your support. Overall, you will be very pleased with what you got. https://www.amazon.com/PinMart-Autism-Awarness-Puzzle-Enamel/dp/B008ODKXRK/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?crid=MA0XQV0502FO&dchild=1&keywords=autism%2Bpuzzle%2Bpiece&qid=1604845221&sprefix=autism%2Bpuzzle%2Bp%2Caps%2C333&sr=8-1-spons&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUExQUNYTkNDRkFHOE1VJmVuY3J5cHRlZElkPUEwMDI4ODIyUldGQ0tZREVTVzQ2JmVuY3J5cHRlZEFkSWQ9QTA5MTMzMTA2OEk5VVlSVzVYVzQmd2lkZ2V0TmFtZT1zcF9hdGYmYWN0aW9uPWNsaWNrUmVkaXJlY3QmZG9Ob3RMb2dDbGljaz10cnVl&th=1Opens in a new tab.



Alex and Ani Women’s Charity by Design, You Complete Me, EWB Bracelet, Expandable


It is one of the special collections of Alex and Ani. It is specially designed to support autism. They believe that like a puzzle piece itself, each individual is unique. Everyone has different talents, beliefs, and perspectives. Once we start to share these with the rest of the world, we complete each other and we make a puzzle as a whole. We will be connected by the power of love. This bracelet is a very stylish way of showing support and love of autism. https://www.amazon.com/Alex-Ani-Complete-Bracelet-Expandable/dp/B076ZNHSCY/ref=sr_1_10?crid=MA0XQV0502FO&dchild=1&keywords=autism+puzzle+piece&qid=1604845221&sprefix=autism+puzzle+p%2Caps%2C333&sr=8-10Opens in a new tab.



Autism Awareness Keychain Gifts for Autistic Colorful Puzzle Piece Key Ring Set of 2


It is a very colorful puzzle piece symbol keychain in order to support autism and raise awareness. The colors are very vibrant and the material is very durable. It is a perfect gift option as well. It is a great starter if you want to talk about autism or if you want people around you to ask questions about autism. Overall, you will be very pleased with this keychain. https://www.amazon.com/FUSTMW-Awareness-Keychain-Autistic-Colorful/dp/B07VVGD9ZQ/ref=sr_1_3?crid=MA0XQV0502FO&dchild=1&keywords=autism%2Bpuzzle%2Bpiece&qid=1604845221&sprefix=autism%2Bpuzzle%2Bp%2Caps%2C333&sr=8-3&th=1Opens in a new tab.


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