As someone who is autistic, I’ve never been particularly fond of the association between autism and puzzle piece imagery for a number of reasons. There are issues both with the message behind the symbology and what it’s come to mean to many autistic people. Additionally, concerns exist with the “advocacy” organization Autism Speaks that has become synonymous with the puzzle piece and autism as a whole in the public eye.
First and foremost I want to address my contempt for the puzzle piece itself. Every time I see that symbol it’s as if I’m being told that I’m broken, alone, confusing, puzzling, in need of fixing, or something to be put back together. For many autistic people, myself included, it’s become nothing but a constant reminder that there are those who believe we don’t “fit” in “their” world. They’re dead wrong. Autism is not some puzzle to put together, and neither am I. Autistic people are just that, people, and we should not be treated as play things or mysteries to be solved, but as people.
The organization that has helped to popularize the puzzle piece, Autism Speaks, is easily the most well known autism “advocacy” group. Since their inception in 2005 they’ve made such extensive use of puzzle piece imagery that it has become almost synonymous with the organization itself. To separate the puzzle piece from Autism Speaks is to separate the mane from a lion. This may initially be interpreted as a positive thing in many regards, I can assure you that it is not. Autism Speaks “advocacy” consists of routinely ignoring and silencing the voices of actually autistic people. They do this through advertisements and campaigns which describe autism as this malignant entity which infiltrates families and steals children and ruins marriages. One particular advert comes to mind, “I Am Autism”. This ad, created and published by Autism Speaks, goes so far as to compare autism to pediatric AIDS and cancer which is both an inaccurate and harmful comparison to make. Autism Speaks regularly associates with as well as provides a platform for parents/caregivers who considered killing both themselves and their autistic children solely on account of said children’s autism. This last example can be found in a rather detrimental documentary known as “Autism Everyday” which Autism Speaks produced and published. Throughout the production process parents of autistic children were encouraged to not clean their homes and intentionally neglect their children in the days prior to filming so as to portray a much bleaker image of autism than the reality of being autistic or living with an autistic person. Autism Speaks has also made a rather nasty habit of advocating for eugenics in the most literal sense through “cures” and prenatal exams for autism. On the surface, prenatal exams may actually seem like a positive development, however, once these kinds of tests became available for Down’s Syndrome abortion among fetuses determined to have Down’s Syndrome skyrocketed to about 67%. Selective abortion was a practice used by Nazi eugenics programs in WWII to weed out “undesireables” from the general population, and it is now being advocated for in front of our own eyes. Of all the words that come to mind when I think about this topic, abhorrent seems to fit especially well. I implore you to look further into the issues I’ve brought to light as the sins committed against the autistic community by Autism Speaks run deep, far deeper than I could cover in a single column or even an entire newspaper.
By this point I hope it is becoming painfully clear as to what the puzzle piece really means to many autistic people and why it’s use shouldn’t continue in relation to autism. To have easily the most popular autism advocacy organization in the country continually harm, belittle, and promote the eradication of autistic people and then have the symbol of that same organization waved around and used to represent and support our entire community is nothing short of shameful and cruel. Most people would immediately see the issue with this situation in advocacy for other groups of people. So let me ask you, why is this the norm when it comes to autism advocacy?
We can speak out and have been speaking out, many of us for our entire lives, most people simply refuse to listen. I am only one voice among millions who are on the spectrum, I think it’s about time the rest of our voices are heard and listened to when it comes to our own advocacy. No matter what form that voice comes in whether it’s through a device, with their hands, or spoken out loud; autistic voices matter.