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Symbols for Autism: What Do They Mean?

March 22, 2024

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. He was diagnosed as autistic when he was 14 years old and is an avid advocate for ASD. I hope you find their views useful and bear their different standpoints in mind when using the following symbols.

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Is the puzzle piece an official autism symbol?

There is no one symbol that represents autism, but there is one particular symbol that seems to be most widely recognized: 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. As 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.”

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.”




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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 not to be limited to a symbol. Honestly, there is no one symbol that our family favors over another.”

She continued, “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.”

The 4 most popular symbols for autism

As mentioned above, the puzzle piece is not the only symbol used to illustrate autism. Below, I will round out some of the most popular symbols, images, and colors that represent the autism community

1. Multi-colored puzzle piece ribbon

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 whom were autistic, 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. However, 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”.

2. 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.

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 of autism.

3. Butterfly

Butterfly 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.

4. Gold or rainbow infinity sign

Rainbow Infinity 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.

Symbols as diverse as the condition

Choosing a single symbol for autism is challenging. As a parent of a child with autism, I believe it wouldn’t be fair to represent the diverse experiences of the entire autistic community with just one symbol.

While various organizations and events have attempted to create symbols for autism, not all have successfully captured the perspectives of all autistic individuals. Ultimately, each family and individual affected by autism may resonate with a different symbol, reflecting their unique journey and experiences.

The overarching goal remains to foster understanding, acceptance, and inclusion for autistic individuals in society – a goal that can be achieved through a variety of symbols, each chosen on personal terms.

FAQs

Q: What colors symbolize autism?

A: Colors symbolizing autism often include shades of blue and variations of puzzle pieces, representing the complexity and diversity of the autism spectrum. These symbols aim to raise awareness and promote acceptance of individuals with autism.

Q: Is the infinity symbol for autism?

A: No, the infinity symbol is not universally recognized as the symbol for autism. While it has been used by some individuals and organizations to represent autism, there isn’t a single, widely accepted symbol for the condition.

Q: What color is used on Autism Awareness Day?

A: The color most commonly associated with Autism Awareness Day is light blue. It serves as a symbol of support and understanding for individuals on the autism spectrum.

References

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

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/awareness-pride-evolution-autism-symbols-from-1963-amber/?trk=articles_directory

Autism And Its Associated Symbols, Major Research Paper (Master’s), Critical Disability Studies, School of Health Policy and Management,Faculty of Health, York University, 2017, https://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/items/9390e0c0-2158-4194-9a67-28a5cba79509 

Gernsbacher, M. A., Raimond, A. R., Stevenson, J. L., Boston, J. S., & Harp, B. (2018). Do puzzle pieces and autism puzzle piece logos evoke negative associations? Autism, 22(2), 118-125. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361317727125

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