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Autism and Identity: Moving Beyond The Puzzle Piece Symbol

image of an infinity symbol with multi colors like a rainbow

June 30, 2023

Symbols used by communities often serve as a visual representation of a group's identity, values, and shared beliefs. Representation is important, and the language and symbols used to represent an identity and a community have power and meaning. Symbols play a crucial role in defining, expressing, and uniting communities.

For the autism community the puzzle piece has long been associated with the community. Its origins can be traced back to the late 1960s when the Autism Society of America (ASA) adopted the symbol as its logo. Since the early aughts there has been a growing movement within the autism community to move away from the puzzle piece symbol and adopt alternative symbols that promote acceptance, autonomy, and celebration of neurodiversity. Some of the key reasons why the puzzle piece is problematic are highlighted below:

  1. Oversimplification:The puzzle piece, with its connotation of missing or incomplete parts, implies that autistic people are somehow incomplete or broken.
  2. Medicalization: The puzzle piece symbolizes focusing on finding a way to "fix" autism rather than accepting and accommodating neurodiversity. It promotes a medical model that disregards the experiences, strengths, and contributions of autistic individuals.
  3. Lack of Autistic Representation: The puzzle piece was initially created by and for non-autistic individuals, raising concerns about excluding the very people it seeks to represent. Some autistic individuals prefer symbols emphasizing acceptance, understanding, and empowerment rather than puzzle imagery.

Recently, at the Autism Institute, we promoted an event with puzzle piece imagery in the flyer. We want to acknowledge that our actions were harmful and lacked the necessary understanding of the lived experiences of individuals with autism and their families. In response to our actions, we wanted to take the time to fully understand the history of the imagery and spread awareness within our own community and the communities we operate within.

There are several alternative symbols one can use to represent the autism community. The infinity symbol (a figure eight on its side) was created by autistic people, representing all forms of neurodiversity, not just autism. It represents the idea of infinite possibilities and acceptance. The rainbow is often associated with diversity and inclusion. Some individuals and organizations have used a rainbow-colored ribbon or infinity symbol. Butterflies are also another well-known alternative, and they symbolize transformation and growth.

It is our commitment to amplify autistic voices and center the community. Moving forward our commitment is to spread awareness about the harm the puzzle piece symbol causes. When we partner with other organizations, we will encourage the use of affirming symbols for all activities and informational guides.