What do you picture in your mind when you hear the phrase “symbols for autism”? It might be the puzzle piece, the color blue, the infinity sign, or maybe the butterfly? This article will discuss some of these symbols, what they mean, and how autistic advocates feel about their usage.
When researching for this article, I had the pleasure of speaking with some autism advocates and individuals with autism, like Thomas McKean, who was diagnosed autistic when he was 14 years old and is an avid advocate for autism spectrum disorder (ASD). I hope you find their views useful and bear their different standpoints in mind when using the following symbols.
Is there an official symbol for autism?
There is no one symbol that represents autism but there is one particular symbol that seems to be most widely recognised: the puzzle piece.
When I spoke with Joe Omichinski, who is an autistic individual, he stated: “The symbols I most associate with autism are the puzzle piece and the color blue. If I had to pick a favorite symbol, I would pick the color blue, mainly because blue is one of my favorite colors.”
Thomas McKean, who was one of 15 people who helped create the multi-colored, interlocking puzzle piece ribbon and Autism Awareness Month, added: “I associate the multi-colored puzzle piece with autism. So far as I am aware, it remains the official international autism symbol. When you see it, you know what it is and what it represents.”
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Catherine Blatnik, a parent and autism advocate, agrees with Thomas’ outlook on the puzzle piece. She commented: “I associate two different symbols with autism—one is the puzzle piece and the other is the Autism Awareness Ribbon. I like the puzzle piece because it is instantly recognizable. I don’t look at it as though my son with autism is ‘missing’ something, but rather that he is unique in his own way.”
When I asked Katie Esme, mother of two children with autism and an avid autism advocate in Canada, what symbols she associated with autism, she said: “I think it’s possible to not be limited to a symbol. Honestly, there is no one symbol that our family favors over another. I like to keep an open mind and recognize that this is a spectrum for a reason and some people will connect to all the symbols, while others only connect with one. It is my job as an advocate to support and love what they connect with on their journey and realize not everyone has to agree.”
What symbols represent the autism community?
As mentioned above, the puzzle piece is not the only symbol used to illustrate autism. Below, I will round-up of some of the most popular symbols, images, and colors which represent the autism community.
Multi-colored puzzle piece ribbon
As previously mentioned, the symbol that most people associate with autism is the multi-colored, interlocking puzzle piece. This symbol was created by 15 people, some of which were autistic (or people with autism) and others were autism advocates.
In Thomas McKean’s article, The Autism Puzzle Piece Logo: What it Really Means, he states that the puzzle pattern reflects the unknowns of autism and how it works as a diagnosis. The bright colors represent the diversity of autism and those diagnosed, as well as the hope for awareness, understanding, and acceptance among everyone.
What the puzzle piece ribbon signals to others
The puzzle piece has been met with much controversy among the autistic community. For example, Paula Jessop is an autistic adult who states in her article, Autism no puzzle, nothing wrong with us, that some individuals look at the puzzle as a suggestion that people on the spectrum are missing a piece of themselves.
Paula added that the symbol is problematic for autistic people because the campaign surrounding the symbol felt negative. When the puzzle piece was created on a ribbon, she felt it suggested autism was a disease and help was needed to “cure autism”.
This is a directly opposite view to that of Thomas McKean who helped create the symbol. Thomas states the creators were looking to design a symbol that represents the complexity and neurodiversity of people with autism; thus the idea emerged of puzzle pieces coming together.
Light It Up Blue campaign
On April 2nd, World Autism Awareness Day (or World Autism Acceptance Day) is celebrated. One way it is marked is through the Light It Up Blue campaign that was started by the charity Autism Speaks.
On this date, autism advocates and supporters are encouraged to wear blue. There are also blue lights placed at tourist attractions such as Niagara Falls, the Empire State building, etc. The campaign has resulted in some members of the public seeing the color blue as a symbol for autism.
The butterfly symbol is one that signifies change and represents the diversity of people on the autism spectrum. It also symbolizes the full lives of the autistic community, and the beauty of the differences of autistic people. The butterfly is a fairly new symbol and some advocates have suggested it is used as a replacement for the puzzle piece.
Gold or rainbow infinity sign for autism
The infinity symbol is also a fairly new symbol and was created with the help of neurodiversity advocates to be used at any time in any place. The symbol was first used on Autistic Pride Day on June 18th, 2005. It was created using a different perspective than previous symbols and to raise awareness all year round. The use of a rainbow spectrum in the infinity symbol was designed to drive awareness of the diversity among neurodivergent individuals.
Is there one united symbol for autism?
You will see from the above information that this is a difficult question to respond to. In short, the answer is no. As a parent of a child with autism, I feel that to pinpoint one symbol for autism wouldn’t be fair or represent all members of the autistic community.
There are many organizations, like Autism Speaks, the Autism Society, and National Autistic Society, that have used and helped create symbols for autism acceptance. Also, many celebrations such as World Autism Awareness Day and Autism Acceptance Month (or Autism Awareness Month), have been launched to increase awareness of the autism spectrum. Many of these symbols, events, and activities were created with autistic individuals and their families in mind—but they have not all succeeded in representing the views of some members of the autistic community (despite positive intentions).
At the end of the day, different families living with autism will have a symbol that resonates with them and the autistic person in their life. The main goal of creating each symbol is that autistic people are better understood and have the opportunity to enjoy full lives in a welcoming society.
A welcoming society is one that offers acceptance, understanding, and inclusion. The symbol that represents this will differ for different people and will be chosen on their own terms, based on their life experiences, and what they feel best represents their journey.
Jessop, P. (2019). Autism no puzzle, nothing wrong with us. Altogether Autism Takiwatanga. https://www.altogetherautism.org.nz/autism-no-puzzle-nothing-wrong-with-us/#:~:text=To%20autistic%20people%2C%20the%20puzzle,the%20past%20referring%20to%20autism