The Puzzling Problem of Symbols

Autism is often represented by disconnected puzzle pieces. This symbolism sends an unfortunate message about people with autism that does not promote social justice.


When I first started seeing disconnected puzzle pieces as symbolism for people with autism, these pieces seemed far removed from my life. The danger they posed seemed more theoretical than practical. Then, I went to my youngest son’s school for an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting. He was struggling with behavioral problems.

It was April, and I usually have IEP meetings for each of my children around this time to plan out what to do about any new issues that have arisen. All three of my children have diagnoses of autism.

As I made my way to my youngest son’s classroom, everywhere I looked revealed posters or flyers calling attention to National Autism Awareness Month. Several staff members were even wearing T-shirts promoting autism awareness!

At first blush, this might seem like a good thing, considering that my sons have autism. The staff was trying to show they supported their students with autism. Unfortunately, the symbolism they used invalidated their efforts. All of these posters, flyers and T-shirts shared two things in common: First, they symbolized autism by showing three mismatched puzzle pieces lying atop one another with edges that clearly couldn’t fit together. Second, they did not show any people with autism.

The danger posed by this symbolism felt very real, not just theoretical. I couldn’t see my sons anywhere in that symbol. I saw brokenness, confusion and disorder. It wasn’t just that the puzzle pieces were out of place; those pieces had no place where they belonged! I couldn’t help but see the irony. My sons are really good at putting puzzles together, but they struggle to cope with frustration. If I handed my kids puzzle pieces that couldn’t fit together, they would throw a fit.

As I walked into the classroom, I saw more staff members with T-shirts promoting autism awareness. I realized that the symbol wasn’t about my children. It wasn’t about autism at all. Those disconnected puzzle pieces symbolized other people’s confusion, discomfort and frustration. Autism can be a very puzzling disability. People with autism think and act in ways other people don’t expect and can’t make sense of.

I get it. I had to immerse myself in the lives and stories of people with autism before I could really understand the way my children’s needs differed from my expectations. People symbolize autism with puzzle pieces because they’re seeing autism from their own perspectives. To many of us, people with autism seem disordered and somehow wrong. It’s common, but that doesn’t make it right. Stereotypes come in all shapes and sizes, and representing people with autism using images of brokenness and confusion is stereotyping. By relying on these images, we dehumanize our children and reduce them to symbols because symbols are easier to understand.

The solution is to make others aware of people with autism—or autistic people, as some prefer to be addressed—in a way that shows how they are whole human beings that really do fit together.

Crist is a writer and an advocate who parents three children with autism.

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