Although there is controversy surrounding its use, the puzzle piece is a highly recognized symbol for autism spectrum disorders. This motif decorates everything from bumper stickers to t-shirts, and it means different things to different people. In many cases, it takes the form of a ribbon made out of rainbow puzzle pieces.
According to the journal Autism, the first logo featuring the puzzle piece was for a British organization called the National Autistic Society. In 1963, Gerald Gasson, a parent of a child with autism, drew the simple puzzle-shaped logo with an image of a crying child. The logo was reportedly designed to show that autism caused suffering and that children with the disorder would not "fit in" to society. The National Autistic Society no longer uses this design.
More than three decades later, in 1999, the Autism Society trademarked the easily recognizable rainbow puzzle piece ribbon. The Autism Society shares the use of this design with many other non-profit organizations devoted to autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and autism awareness, and this openness to sharing the symbol may be one reason why the design has become so iconic. The Autism Society says that the puzzle piece originally symbolized the "complexity of the autism spectrum." The various colors represented the diversity inherent in autism and the fact that the disorder is a spectrum. The bright graphic also signifies hope for greater autism awareness.
Sometimes, organizations use the puzzle piece ribbon, and other times, they use a single puzzle piece. There are many different versions of the logo and many different ways that organizations use the symbol. The following projects and organizations are some of the most famous.
Autism Speaks Puzzle Piece Project
The Autism Speaks Puzzle Piece Project uses the single puzzle piece symbol to teach autism awareness in schools. It's designed to act as a springboard for conversation about autism and to increase awareness about ASD among peers of kids on the spectrum. The project "tool kit" includes a template for making puzzle pieces that kids can then decorate and combine to create a larger design.
Million Dollar Puzzle Piece Challenge
In conjunction with the Autism Research Institute, the Million Dollar Puzzle Piece Challenge is a fundraising effort to support autism research. When people sign up to sell the puzzle pieces for one dollar apiece, volunteers send packets of 50 pieces. Schools and businesses can then display the sold pieces with people's names or children's artwork.
The Puzzle Piece Foundation
The Puzzle Piece Foundation is a nonprofit organization that works to enhance the educational and support services children and families on the autism spectrum may receive. They offer financial help for education professionals and service providers to encourage more people to devote their time, energy, and expertise to directly serving people on the autism spectrum. Their logo is a single blue puzzle piece with their name.
I Love a Child with Autism
I Love a Child with Autism is a retail business run by the mom of a child on the spectrum. It sells everything from t-shirts to magnets. The business owner uses the proceeds to allow her to care for her son, and she also donates to several autism charities. The puzzle piece is part of the business logo, and most of the merchandise features a single puzzle piece or a rainbow puzzle pattern.
Autism UGA is a student organization at the University of Georgia, which helps support autism awareness. It uses a logo that consists of the puzzle piece symbol combined with the outline of the state of Georgia. They chose the puzzle piece because it represents diversity.
Although they are easy to recognize, the puzzle piece ribbon and puzzle piece logo are controversial. For some people, the meaning behind the logo is negative.
A Symbol of Isolation
The Autism Society acknowledges that over the years, the puzzle piece and puzzle piece ribbon have come to mean different things. They share the results of an informal poll where they asked what the ribbon means, and answers ranged from seeing the ribbon as a symbol of belonging to viewing it as a sign of isolation. To some people, the puzzle piece meant they did not fit in.
Too Mysterious to Understand
According to an editorial in Psychology Today, many people on the spectrum resent the idea of autism as a puzzle that needs to be "solved." To them, the puzzle piece indicates that they are too mysterious to understand. This could be seen as a defeatist attitude that doesn't promote acceptance and awareness at all. Some would prefer a symbol that called for inclusion, dignity, and empowerment.
An Outdated Icon
An excellent informal poll on The Art of Autism highlighted another important aspect of the controversy. Some believe that the symbol of the puzzle piece and the mystery of the disorder are simply outdated. They call for a new symbol to signify the cooperation required by society to make changes in support of individuals on the autism spectrum.