I’m sitting in my art theory seminar. As my fellow art students argue that everything is subjective, there are no rules, and they can do whatever they want, I stare down one leg of the U-shaped table. I see a cup sitting in front of the student at the very end, and on the cup I see the light blue puzzle piece that is the logo for Autism Speaks. I’m not going to discuss why I have a strong dislike of Autism Speaks (HERE is an extensive summary of reasons if you’re curious). It’s not the only organization that has adopted the puzzle piece as a logo, but because of its prominence and a number of commercial partners, that light blue puzzle piece ends up a lot of places. In this case, it was on a disposable clear plastic cup from McAlister’s Deli. I wondered if this student knew anything about what she was supporting or if she just wanted a cup of iced tea.
The puzzle piece has become a symbol for autism. Autism Society has its trademarked ribbon made out of puzzle pieces. Then there’s the Autism Society of North Carolina (seemingly unaffiliated with the aforementioned society) that also has a puzzle-piece-inspired logo. There’s also the Puzzle Piece Foundation that not only uses a puzzle piece in its logo but in its name as well. Searching through the internet, I see puzzle piece jewelry and puzzle piece tattoos. And I see the various meanings that both autistic and non-autistic people have attributed to the puzzle piece. Some are for it; some are against it. And I’m certainly not the first autistic blogger to address this issue.
But as I sit in class, I think about how pervasive this imagery is and how I interpret it. What does this symbol mean? Is autism a puzzle? Am I a puzzle? Am I a missing piece or an out-of-place piece? Am I that piece that you think should fit in a certain place of the puzzle but inexplicably doesn’t and drives you crazy?
Yes, autism is mysterious. We don’t know a whole lot about what causes it. That’s slowly changing. A puzzle is something to be solved, something to be arranged and ordered, something to be put back together to make a cohesive image. Autism doesn’t need to be solved as much as it needs to be understood. It’s not something that needs to be rearranged until it makes better sense or turns into an image that is aesthetically pleasing. When I see the puzzle piece, I think that perhaps I am a piece out of place that must be made to fit in as part of a larger whole – never mind that it might not be the right place for me, just as long as I’m put somewhere. A jigsaw puzzle is a very strict metaphor. There is only one right way to construct it and every piece has it’s predetermined place. I am not a puzzle piece to be forced into one spot.