I spent 18 years of my life with little knowledge about what autism is. It wasn’t until a few months before high school graduation that, after intense research, my family and I realized that I may be autistic. I then began a 2 year long journey to get an official diagnosis, but that journey began with very little desire to search out information related to autism.
I did not begin to learn about autism until I saw an Autism Speaks puzzle piece sticker on the window of a car when my mom and I were out shopping. I was confused, because I hadn’t seen a puzzle piece used as a symbol for autism prior to that day. Seeing this sticker encouraged me to learn more about autism, especially since my family had reason to believe that I was autistic. The first internet search related to autism that I ever did was “what does the autism puzzle piece mean.” I sifted through page after page of explanations and commentary from fellow autistics and parents with autistic children. I felt that the puzzle piece was able to explain me better than I had ever known how.
The puzzle piece was first used in relation to autism as the logo of the National Autistic Society in 1963. It has since then been used, in some form or another, as the logo of many different organizations that are tied to autism. The puzzle piece is probably most well known as the logo of Autism Speaks. I’ve seen a divide between autistics concerning whether or not the puzzle piece is a fitting symbol for us. Some have argued that this symbol suggests that we are childish, incapable, and that we don’t fit in with the rest of society. I can definitely see how those who feel this way about the puzzle piece can find it offensive, but I’ve always chosen to look at it a different way.
I do not see the puzzle piece as a symbol that represents autism as a mystery that science hasn’t been able to solve yet. Rather, I see it as a representation that there are many different aspects to my autism that all come together to make me who I am. My sensory issues, my special interests, my coping mechanisms, my stims, they are all parts of my autism that, when combined, make me the unique person that I am. I think of each of these things as a separate puzzle piece.
Over time I have learned more and more about how my autism makes me who I am. Each time I learn something new about my autism, I view it as another piece being added to my puzzle. Putting together the puzzle that is myself is about learning who I am and how my autism makes me unique. The goal is not to solve the “mystery” of autism, it is figure out who I am and what makes me unique.
I also believe that the puzzle piece does a good job of symbolizing how challenging, yet rewarding, a life with autism can be. I will be one of the first people to admit that having autism is challenging. Yes, there are days when life is difficult. I have many days where it seems like everything in the world around me is setting off my sensory issues, or days when I have continuous struggles with socialization. A puzzle, like being autistic, can be incredibly challenging. However, overcoming a challenge can be quite rewarding. I remember putting together many puzzles throughout my life. At the completion of every puzzle there was always a feeling of satisfaction, having conquered a challenge (no matter how big or small the challenge is). Learning how to overcome difficulties related to my autism has been the same way. I feel incredibly encouraged when I learn how to become better at making eye contact, talking on the phone, learning how to navigate conversations without scripts, or overcome any other challenge that is related to my autism. I do not see these challenges as negative things, but instead as opportunities to build my skills.
Overall, I personally view the puzzle piece as an excellent symbol for autism. It has been used by organizations whose views on autism I don’t agree with, and not all autistics agree with its supposed meaning. I can’t tell others how they should feel about its usage, but I have come to adopt it as effective symbol of what life on the autism spectrum is like. It is a simple, yet profound way to represent my experience with autism. Other autistics may not find it to be a suitable symbol, and that’s okay.
Each person should search out a symbol that they feel best represents their experience with autism.