Yeah, that autistic puzzle piece thing…

A picture of hands mixing up jigsaw puzzle pieces
To be honest, it’s all mixed up, and it’s unrealistic to expect it get sorted into a neat little package.

This morning I saw a friendly tweet from a researcher who is looking for input for some research on autistic folks. Someone brought to her attention the fact that a lot of us on the spectrum aren’t big fans of the puzzle piece emblem. I agreed and promised I’d write a blog post about it.

Here are my own thoughts about why I don’t personally care for using that image to represent folks on the autism spectrum:

  1. It brings to mind associations with Autism $peaks, that hostile organization which thinks that all people like me are a horrific trial and pestilence on the world’s peace of mind, and who should be “cured” by genetic engineering or forcible “behavioral” approaches. The bile is rising in my throat as I write this, so, moving on…
  2. It’s too simplistic. It has clearly outlined borders. It has a uniform shape, which would fit into other uniformly shaped pieces nicely… if only we could find them all. It seems to imply (to my mind, at least), that there is one or more clear-cut solution(s) to the “problem(s)” of the autistic spectrum. That’s not the case at all. First off, not all the issues are real problems for anyone other than neurotypical folks who don’t have the right information or temperament to deal with us. Each of us on the spectrum has our unique strengths and challenges, strong points and weaknesses, relative to each other. And even within ourselves, from one day to the next, from one moment to the next, our abilities and challenges can fluctuate a great deal. A puzzle piece that was analogous to us would have no solid outline, and its shape would be constantly shifting. And there’d be no guarantee it would ever fit with any other piece someone had on hand.
  3. It implies that there’s a uniform picture that can emerge, if only all the pieces were put in place. And then we’ll be done with the picture, and that will be that. My parents are big jigsaw puzzle people, and they routinely burn through many-thousand piece puzzles on a regular basis. I always think of them neatly putting the finishing touches on their puzzles, with their piece-hunting skils honed from years of practice. With autism, there is no uniform picture, no neat and tidy image that you can gaze upon with a sense of completion. We are always changing, always shifting, and trying to pin us down as part of a single comprehensive view, is not only unrealistic, but also demeaning. It denies us our individuality and our dynamic humanity.
  4. Autism is not a puzzle to me. It’s a puzzle to others. And it’s their ignorance and confusion that’s caused shortcomings in understanding. If anything is missing, it’s not information about me and others like me. There’s an over-abundance of that. What’s really missing, is comprehension and compassion and acceptance from the neurotypical world.

I know a puzzle piece is really easy to draw. You can tell what it is from a distance, which is good for marketing and public awareness. It’s also a catchy and clear-cut metaphor for people who often feel at a total loss for how to understand autism and folks on the spectrum. But the shape and the metaphor serves them more than it does us. And in the process, it oversimplifies a complex, dynamic, and ever-shifting phenomenon that needn’t be as scary as people make it out to be.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

For now.

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