Colorful puzzle piece with the paint flaking off


“Participants associated puzzle pieces with imperfection, incompletion, uncertainty, difficulty, the state of being unsolved, and, most poignantly, being missing,”

“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.”

Is It Time To Ditch The Autism Puzzle Piece?

Every April, parent- and professional-led autism charities ask their supporters to spread awareness by lighting buildings and monuments up blue, wearing blue clothing, and pinning puzzle piece lapels to their shirts.

This does nothing to address the very real practical issues that we face. Instead, the substance of these campaigns more often spreads fear and promotes harmful stereotypes. Autism Speaks, the organization responsible for the Light It Up Blue campaign, describes the current generation of autistic children, adolescents, and young adults as a public health crisis and burden on families and governments. Over the long history of the puzzle ribbon, it has often been associated with a belief that autistic people are missing pieces, which must be found so we can be made whole. With this context, many of us see puzzle ribbon bumper stickers and blue lights on our city’s landmarks as signs of hate, not support.

5 Guidelines to keep in mind during Autism Acceptance Month | AssistiveWare
Autism Awareness Month and the Problem with Puzzle Piece Logos

The puzzle pieces are infantilizing and suggest something is wrong with autistic people, which is really insulting.

Autism is not a puzzle to be solved nor do they have a missing piece.

The use of puzzle pieces can actively promote harm and prejudice…

Autism Awareness Month and the Problem with Puzzle Piece Logos – YouTube

Autism charities, on the other hand, are more geared towards families of autistic people, such as parents and relatives of autistic people. They are centered on the medical model of disability, and often include the notion of curing, treating, preventing, or combating autism in their mission statement, or otherwise looking for “answers” to solve the “puzzle” of autism. They characterize autism as a tragedy or something undesirable, and may compare it to diseases and disorders. They may use outdated or falsified research to support their statements of autism being a tragedy or being caused by environmental factors or vaccines. They often have minimal, if any involvement of autistic people in their organization. They may pathologize autism or compare autism to a disease by using language to describe autistic people such as “people touched by autism,” “people impacted by autism,” or, “people affected by autism.” They may use symbols that depict autistic people as broken, missing links or infantilize autistic people, such as the puzzle piece symbol. A majority of the budget for most autism charities goes towards cure and treatment research, administration, and conferences that support the medical model of disability, advertisements that spread autism “awarenessAcceptance means training mental health service providers to look at autism and other disabilities as a part of a person’s identity, rather than a problem that needs to be fixed. Acceptance…” through pathologizing autism and fear mongering such as the “I am Autism” advertisement from Autism Speaks.

Good Autistic Advocacy Organizations vs. Bad Autism “Charities”

Further reading,