More on Autism Puzzle Piece Logos, Symbols, Ribbons

I joined Twitter on the first day of 2011 (@autisticme). I also joined a Twibe (seriously?) and registered with to learn more about what autism-related Twitter feeds might exist.

Within a few days, I was already observing a familiar debate. In fact, it the debate I described in the single most-viewed blog entry of The Autistic Me, which dates back to 2008 (see "Logos, Symbols, and Ribbons").

Various "Aspie Advocates" are still protesting the puzzle piece. I'm sure they will be protesting the puzzle piece next year, in five years, and a decade from now. The "neurodiverstiy" (ND) movement doesn't like the puzzle piece. (Everyone's brain is different: neurological diversity is a fact of life.)

Honestly, I don't care for the puzzle piece either. I've written and said that I find it personally off-putting. If I am a puzzle, I'm not more or less of a puzzle than most human beings. I'm told, "Oh, no, it is autism that is the puzzle." Fine, but so are dozens of other human conditions. To me, a puzzle makes it seem like I'm either missing a piece or that I'm that one strange extra piece in some boxes.

Yes, I know people will give me "101 Reasons for the Puzzle Piece" — seriously, I have received at least that many explanations via e-mail. Some are cute, some are only semi-serious, and some are passionate defenses of the logo. Some parents and caregivers identify with the logo more intensely than I identify with my hometown or beloved California.

I might not love the logo, but I'm not repulsed by it. I just think it is strange. I'm not inclined to protest or care as much as the aspie/autie self-advocacy neurodiversity autism rights activists. Instead, I decided to learn about the history of the puzzle piece and other symbols.

It turns out, the puzzle piece was chosen because it was distinct. There was no plan, no long debate about significance. A professional gave a presentation, "Perspectives on a Puzzle," to the National Autism Society, U.K., shortly after the organization was founded in 1962.

Apparently, the puzzle piece logo was adopted in 1963, according to the notes posted by a director of the organization. The original NAS puzzle piece was green. In 2005, Autism Speaks adopted a blue puzzle piece. The Autism Society of America uses a puzzle piece of multi-colored puzzle pieces. You get the idea.
It was designed by a parent member of the Executive Committee, Gerald Gasson, and the minutes of the Executive Meeting of 14 February 1963 read: 'The Committee decided that the symbol of the Society should be the puzzle as this did not look like any other commercial or charitable one as far as they could discover'. It first appeared on our stationary and then on our newsletter in April 1963. Our Society was the first autistic society in the world and our puzzle piece has, as far as I know, been adopted by all the autistic societies which have followed, many of which in their early days turned to us for information and advice.
The current NAS logo is a bit difficult to describe.

One year ago, right before National Autism Awareness Month (April in the U.S.), there was a flurry of outrage on various autism forums protesting the puzzle piece. I understand the response, and I now realize this will be a debate that goes on daily and weekly within autism communities.
On LiveJournal yesterday there were more than 50 posts within a few hours on the puzzle piece icons / logos used by various autism-related organizations. The vast majority of posts were from people with ASDs who view the puzzle quite negatively. One reason for the depth of distaste is the association of the puzzle with Autism Speaks.
The puzzle piece isn't going away because it is so easily recognized. Parents spot it from hundreds of feet away. It's a way for families to feel like they aren't alone, I suppose. This isn't like a campaign sticker -- autism doesn't go away after six months of annoying television commercials. It's a life-long part of not only my life, but the lives of people around me. Maybe they have something of a need to share that identity with each other.

I realize the self-advocates, and certainly me, forget that our friends and family do want and need connections to share their experiences. They need to feel there's a support network out there.

I might not like the puzzle piece, but maybe it isn't for me. It definitely isn't "for me" in the same way fried Twinkies aren't "for me" -- I don't find it appealing at all. But, the puzzle isn't the biggest issue in my life or in the lives of most autistic students I've met. They care about services and supports, not about bracelets and t-shirts.

Someone from an autism group told me I should be passionate, since I studied "rhetoric" and know the power of words and symbols. Yes, I do know their power. Right now, the power is that it helps organize parents, educators, and other advocates trying to maintain services and supports against a difficult economic backdrop. I might not approve of everything Autism Speaks represents, but I also know I am better off persuading groups to pursue supports for teens and adults than worrying about their symbol choice.

Also, I have been a presenter at Autism Society of America events. I happen to like the ASA, even when I might disagree with some programs locally -- like skillshops presenting "both sides" of diet and vaccination issues. I want ASA to grow and prosper. I'd rather people think of ASA than Autism Speaks, honestly. So, if people want to buy and display the ASA ribbon / puzzle piece, I'm not going to tell them otherwise.

From the Autism Society of America:
Put on the Puzzle! The Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon is the most recognized symbol of the autism community in the world. Autism prevalence is now one in every 110 children in America - that's 13 million families and growing who live with autism today. Show your support for people with autism by wearing the Autism Awareness Puzzle Ribbon this month – as a pin on your shirt, a magnet on your car, a badge on your blog, or even your Facebook profile picture - and educate folks on the potential of people with autism! For suggestions and resources, visit
If you want to display, wear, or promote a puzzle piece or some other symbol, that's your choice.

The one logo / symbol I display anywhere is the "bitten Apple" logo. I miss the old rainbow logo Apple used during the 1980s, but we have the white stickers on our cars and even my scooter. The sticker makes it a lot easier to recognize which plain white Jeep Cherokee is ours in a parking lot.


  1. You are right. My son, who has autism, has never pointed at the puzzle ribbion and said, "Look, that represents me!".
    You are also right in saying that the ribbion is a way of identifying someone who might understand what I am going through and I can identify the symbol 100 yards away :)

  2. Hi!

    I found this blog by googling 'puzzle piece autism history'.
    Thank you! :-)

    As the child and grandchild of autistic people, and an autistic parent of autistic children, I never found autism puzzling either; rather, it is the neurotypical mind that baffles me. Why do their facial expressions often not match their tone of voice, for instance? Or their tone of voice match their words, or their body language?

    I do appreciate that parents want to find people in similar situations to themselves, which is why so many make friends with others who have children of the same ages, for instance, regardless of their own age. It is, after all, why my best friends are neurodiverse too!

    I like the current NAS logo; to me, it symbolises two very different people who, nevertheless, are reaching out to one another in mutual support.

    I think that is an admirable sentiment.

    People have a lot to offer one another, regardless of neurotype, health, age or physical or mental disability. We all have different talents, skills and needs. It would be a poor world indeed if we lost a whole way of thinking just because it poses challenges in a world not designed for it.

    Now to read some more of this blog!

  3. Thanks...I've been trying to decide whether or not to be offended by the puzzle piece. 2 of my kids are on the Spectrum and I haven't been able to decide whether I like it or not.
    I think my kids are perfect little genius weirdos who don't need to be changed...they only need to learn to function in the neurotypical world.
    They also need understanding and patience...just like everyone else.

  4. Thank you for the history and your personal perspective. I found it very interesting especially since I have raised thousands of dollars for Autism Speaks. I think any organization that promotes awareness, advocacy, and research is worth it. I like the puzzle piece because it is distinctive from all other awarness symbols. That's just me. However, what's more important is having appropriate services and support as you say for those on the spectrum. It's unfortunate that people get so easily offended. According to the history you provided, the puzzle piece made sense. I'm sure no one organization whether Autism Speaks, Autism Society of America or NAS meant to offend anyone on the spectrum. It's sad that people can find offense to a simple yet distinctive symbol that ironically connects us all who are affected. I will wear my puzzle piece with pride and will continue to advocate and fundraise for you and all in the spectrum because I love You as a human and I want everyone to treat you, my son and everyone else on the spectrum as such.

  5. Hello,

    Please confirm,as I suspect that the puzzle piece logo of Autism Speaks is supposed to represent the figure of a person, head, two out-stretched arms and out-stretched legs almost like the imaage of a teddy-bear.
    My question is not intended to offend. I am curious from an academic perspective as to whether of not I am "reading" this logo correctly, according to the designers intent.

    Personally, I have been tremendously impressed by autitic spokespeople on the web and recognize that there may be legitimate criticicm for how autism speaks operates and messages.


  6. The information I can locate doesn't suggest there was any intentional "plan" to have the puzzle seem human or toy-like. The tab is sometimes at the top (Autism Speaks) but the puzzle has also been flipped, sideways, and sometimes has two tabs (either on the sides or vertically). The NAS design was simply meant to be distinct and easy to recognize. Maybe revisions and refinements have altered this -- I'm fairly sure any refinements were carefully planned by a designer.

    Personally, I'm tired of various ribbons and logos. I see so many on cars in parking lots that they are not distinct or special. Yellow, pink, blue, and various patterns (flags, puzzles) on ribbon magnets start to lose effectiveness.

  7. Another Autism information source:
    Working with Autism, located in Los Angeles, has helped hundreds of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder to achieve their maximum potential for independence.

  8. I think of fun UNIQUE shapes when I see puzzle pieces. Also that they are complex and when put together make a beautiful picture. Not that it would symbolize a picture or person being any less.

  9. Excellent drawing! think any organization that promotes awareness, advocacy, and research is worth it. I like the puzzle piece because it is distinctive from all other awarness symbols.Car Stickers

  10. I get your problem with the puzzle piece, and for the most part I agree with you. I am an adult with Autism, and I find it sad that the "experts" who describe what it is like to be autistic are Neurotypical and don't seem to listen to us when we try to tell them what it is really like! However, despite the many flaws and the fact that, I am sure without meaning too, we are presented as less than because we are different, all of this "stuff" (the logos, walks, etc) have in fact raised awareness... which has made my life a great deal easier. So, while I prefer Neurotypical and A-Neurotypical to ASD (the disorder part is what gets me), as long as it is making people realize that we exist and have rights, I see it as good.


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