The puzzle piece, and the 4-piece interlocking puzzle as pictured below, have historically been the visual icon associated with autism. In fact, I used to own many shirts, key chains, bags, and other items bedazzled with the iconic emblem. But I have spent the past year at home during the pandemic listening to autistic adults, and I would like to share how my perspective regarding the puzzle piece has changed.
Here's the honest, rarely discussed truth. Autistic children become autistic teenagers. And autistic teenagers become autistic adults. Autism doesn't "end" at age 18. I have been thinking about this a lot lately because my autistic son is now 16 years old. As he transitions into young adulthood, I have been paying closer attention to what autistic adults are saying on social media (how fascinating is it that we now have this platform for continuously listening and learning?!). One of the topics that is discussed by many autistic adults is their concern regarding use of the puzzle piece to represent autistic individuals.
Here are some of the issues surrounding the puzzle piece:
So...this conversation now leads us to the elephant in the room. If we no longer use the puzzle piece, what do we use instead? Actually autistic adults are asking that we use the infinity symbol and say bye-bye to the puzzle piece. Some autistic adults use the red infinity symbol to represent autism (RED INSTEAD in lieu of LIGHT IT UP BLUE), and the rainbow infinity symbol to represent the greater neurodiversity movement. There has also been a movement to use the gold infinity symbol (because Au is the International Chemical symbol for gold, and A and U are the first two letters in the word AUtism).
Regardless of the color, here is why the infinity symbol is becoming the preferred visual to represent autism:
It is important to remember that we must always listen to those who are ACTUALLY AUTISTIC. If an autistic individual finds value in the puzzle piece, then that is their prerogative to use it.
For me, as an ally to autistic individuals, I will now be using the infinity symbol to show my authentic support and acceptance. As Maya Angelou so beautifully said: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." This is me doing better.
What therapists and educators need to know about early child development
Cari Ebert, MS, CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist who specializes in apraxia, autism and early intervention.