Autistic History Month: the puzzle piece

This article has been rewritten thanks to the feedback in the comments by Quarries and Corridors and Kate Gladstone.

When I first heard about November being Autistic History Month, my mind went blank. I was still struggling to make sense of my personal history in the light of my autism diagnosis. I didn’t know anything about the history of autism in general. Or important historical figures. Or the history of the neurodiversity movement.

But as Unstrangemind posted so eloquently on her blog: “Our own people do not know their history.”

So when I came across some interesting tidbits and factoids in my utterly random browsing today, I wanted to share them with you. On this last day of Autistic History Month 2013. Because we need to know our own history.

The puzzle piece.

First impressions.

When I first came across the puzzle piece symbol a couple of years ago, before I even started thinking of myself as autistic, I thought it was fun. Because I like doing jigsaw puzzles. And it had LOTS OF COLOURS! I’m helpless when it comes to colours. But the puzzle ribbon used by the Autism Society didn’t have as many colours, so it wasn’t as much fun. And Autism Speaks puzzle piece was even worse because it was all monochrome and boring and all by itself.

Second thoughts.

I started thinking about what the puzzle piece was supposed to mean. And I started applying it to myself. Am I a puzzle to be solved, a mystery to other people? Am I that piece of the puzzle that just won’t fit in properly no matter how hard you try? That’s not how I want to think about myself. And I don’t want other people to think that if they’d just cut a little bit off my corners, I’d fit right in. You know, that last bit of sky that you KNOW can’t go anywhere else. But it won’t fit. And you don’t feel like taking out all the sky pieces and starting over. So you just hammer it in and declare the puzzle solved.

Bugger that. I’m not a puzzle.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that neither Autism Speaks or the Autism Society invented the puzzle piece symbolism.

It’s far older than that.

In 1962, a small group of parents in the UK who were frustrated at the lack of understanding and help available for them and their children started a group that would in time become The National Autistic Society and, as far as I can tell, the first autistic organisation in the world.

They’re the ones who started using the puzzle piece. It was designed by Gerald Gasson, a parent member of the Executive Committee.

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’.

From Perspectives on a puzzle piece

However, it wasn’t just a puzzle piece. It was a puzzle piece with a weeping child inside of it.

The puzzle piece is so effective because it tells us something about autism: our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in’. The suggestion of a weeping child is a reminder that autistic people do indeed suffer from their handicap.

From a presentation by Helen Green Allison given in 1987

They actually changed their name from The Society for Autistic Children to The National Autistic Society in 1982, recognising that autism is a disorder that affects adults as well, something that several well-known organisations still struggle with today. But the puzzle piece with the weeping child remained in place until as late as 2002, around the same time they started making an effort to include autistic people on their board.

Their current logo symbolises inclusion and support, and a lot of what they do speaks of focusing on acquiring supports and services for autistic people and looking at the social model of disability instead of the recovery/cure rhetoric that a lot of other organisations still engage in. But it took a lot of pressure and criticism from autistic activists before they got to that spot, and it’s only been a relatively recent change.

I think every person should decide for themselves whether they want to take back the puzzle symbolism, or refuse it because it’s been tainted by organisations that do not speak for us. We could let the puzzle piece divide the community, or we could accept that it’s still a recognisable symbol to many people, or we could try and find something that appeals to all of us. But in the end, it’s up to you.

But I do like knowing a little bit more about the history of the puzzle piece symbol and its origins.