Does the Autism Symbol Send the Wrong Message? A Community Debates

The puzzle piece commonly associated with autism in fact evokes negative connotations, new research has concluded.

Photo credit: hepingting via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA

As far back as the 1960s, a solitary puzzle piece has been a widely used symbol throughout the Autism community. Autism Speaks, the Autism Society of America and numerous other groups have all adopted the imagery in some way, shape or form, and puzzle pieces adorn varying apparel and accessories from t-shirts and pins to credit cards and license plates.

But new research suggests that the logo that has become synonymous with the developmental disability may have had an adverse effect by applying a negative connotation to those that fall within the autistic spectrum.

Academic studies from experts at three major institutions have concluded that people who live with one of the many forms of this condition oppose the symbolism of the puzzle piece. Many of those asked believe the symbol represents them as mysterious, disconnected and in need of fitting in.

In a study published in the journal Autism, the abstract states that the "puzzle-piece imagery stirs debate between those who support and those who object to its use because they believe puzzle-piece imagery evokes negative associations."

Through the use of implicit and explicit association tasks, which are standard study assessments used in consumer brand association surveys, generic puzzle pieces and pieces used for autism logos evoked negative implicit and explicit associations. According to the study, which was a joint venture among researchers from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Ursinus College and the University of Kentucky, "Participants associated puzzle pieces with imperfection, incompletion, uncertainty, difficulty, the state of being unsolved, and, most poignantly, being missing."

Some parents of children with autism see the symbol in a very different light. A 2015 article posted on the website The Art of Autism raised the same questions concerning the symbol, and many parents rallied around the logo:

Sally Verduzco, parent, "I love the puzzle piece… It's part of a unit. Together all of us in our own reality and ways, place each puzzle in the right place to create a unit. Unity coming together. Many pieces as one."

Savana Rose, parent, "I really like the puzzle. To me it does perfectly symbolize all the different ways that our individual kids fit together. It symbolizes the complicated ways in which this disorder may have happened to our kids. It symbolizes how there's no one therapy that works for everyone and sometimes it's a whole puzzle of therapies that actually work. How did this happen? How do we help? How are they different? How are they alike? What works? What doesn't? It's a complicated puzzle to me and the logo speaks all that to me."

Marge Pamintuan, parent, "It's a symbol – perhaps to some, it's a 'missing' piece. I'd like to think our kiddos are the COMPLETING PIECE of the human puzzle."

Despite the positive remarks of some, the researchers of this latest study stand behind their findings. "If an organization's intention for using puzzle-piece imagery is to evoke negative associations, our results suggest the organization's use of puzzle-piece imagery is apt," the study authors wrote. "However, if the organization's intention is to evoke positive associations, our results suggest that puzzle-piece imagery should probably be avoided."

Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is: Does the symbol of a puzzle piece accurately represent those that fall within the autism spectrum, or does it merely act as a veil of our own understanding of these unique individuals, and their potential within a world community?

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