The puzzle piece logo was first used in 1963, and was popularized by Autism Speaks. They use it to symbolize the idea that autistic people are difficult to comprehend (like a puzzle) and that the "cure" for autism is the missing piece.
It has been criticized for portraying autistic people as incomplete. Real Social Skills notes that the symbol itself is not inherently harmful, but "it's offensive because it's strongly associated with... hate groups like Autism Speaks."
However, outside of Autism Speaks the puzzle piece fulfills a positive educational angle challenging those not on the Autistic Spectrum to solve the puzzle that they see by understanding and acceptance.
The puzzle piece logo was first used by the National Autistic Society (then called the Society for Autistic Children) in 1963. It featured a puzzle piece with a picture of a crying child inside of it.
Helen Allison explained:
"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."
The National Autistic Society has since changed the logo and is making an effort to include and respect autistic people.
However, not all autism organizations have followed its footsteps. The puzzle piece logo is used by the prominent anti-autism group Autism Speaks, which has often been criticized by autistic people and their allies for perpetuating hate and stigma, and for shutting out autistic voices.
"Apparently we don’t fit in, we suffer (hence the weeping child) because we are autistic, and we are puzzling/disabled by a puzzling condition. Oh, and it’s supposed to be a symbol of hope."
The autistic community in general opposes the puzzle piece logo as translated by Autism Speaks, arguing that it provides a demeaning view of autism that focuses on neurotypicals and misunderstanding. They claim that it treats autistics as alien, instead of as diverse but fully human. Rachel Cohen-Rottenburg claims that she has been repulsed by the logo "on a visceral level," and that it treats autistic people as inherently incomplete.
"The only way in which you could look at a person and see pieces missing is if you begin with a preconceived notion of what a person is supposed to look like. [...] But if you see the person for himself or herself, and accept the person as a given, without reference to an outside standard, then the picture becomes whole. The person is simply a person, on his or her own terms—nothing more and nothing less."
Many autistic people find it problematic that they are viewed as mysterious or incomplete people. The sentiment echoes that of Ivar Lovaas, father of ABA, who believed that autistic people had to earn their human rights by acting neurotypical (and would scream at, hit, starve, or shock them if they disobeyed). Allies have also been skeptical of the logo, such as Tim from Both Hands and a Flashlight, who views it as insulting and a poor reflection of autistic people.
“If someone thought a puzzle piece was an accurate representation of me, I’d be pretty ticked off to put it mildly. [...] I think the puzzle piece symbol is all about us (parents, family, friends, medical professionals, educators, researchers, etc.) and not at all about people who are autistic. I’m really starting to question whether this is not a symbol of autism but instead a symbol of our own fears and uncertainties. I wonder if we’re the ones with the missing puzzle piece and whether we’ll ever feel at peace with ourselves until we figure out where to look.”
One mother notes that, in addition to the disturbing symbolism, the symbol lacks to unite the community or empower its members under a common cause. She suggests that a new symbol be adopted. However as Autism Speaks prefer to incorrectly label the puzzle piece this is not likely to occur.
The neurodiversity logo, a rainbow infinity sign, has been posed as an alternative to the puzzle piece. The logo celebrates diversity and hope. It is a common motif in the autism acceptance movement. However it can also be seen as too passive and easily swamped by those who claim that neurodiversity is trying to ride the coat tails of the gay and lesbian community for acceptance instead of seeking an identity of its own.
- Real Social Skills: Why the puzzle piece is an offensive symbol
- Autisticook - Autistic History Month: the puzzle piece
- National Autistic Society Timeline
- National Autistic Society: Vision and Mission
- ASAN: 2014 Joint Letter to the Sponsors of Autism Speaks
- Autistic Alex: Why you need to stop using the puzzle piece to represent autistic people
- The Standard Review: Puzzling People
- Unpuzzled: On Puzzles, Privilege, and Missing Pronouns: From Journeys With Autism
- Autism Women's Network: My Thoughts on ABA
- thAutcast: A Video History of Autism: "Screams, Slaps" and Ivar Lovaas
- Library of the History of Autism Research, Behaviorism, & Psychiatry: Screams, Slaps & Love: A surprising, shocking treatment helps far-gone mental cr*pples (WARNING: severely disturbing content, including photos of abuse, torture, and ableism)
- Suburp Comix: The puzzle piece - symbol for Autism?
- The Unpuzzled Project