Why I find the jigsaw puzzle symbol offensive

Tomorrow is apparently the day of prayer for autism and Asperger Syndrome. I know this because I saw a slip of paper about it, with the jigsaw puzzle symbol on it. The slip of paper bothered me somewhat, for various reasons. Prayer itself doesn’t bother me – I have a deep faith in God and I pray. I find myself, however, a little apprehensive about quite what it going to be prayed. And the fact that the word ‘people’ doesn’t occur on this slip – is the prayer to be about the abstract concept of ‘autism and Asperger Syndrome’ or the people it affects? And is it prayer for elimination of autism and Asperger Syndrome, or understanding of them? Now I realise the desire some people have for a ‘cure’ is very controversial, and besides, different people seem to mean something different by it, and I don’t really wish to get into a big debate about that, because it’s one of those issues where I can actually see elements of both sides. And I certainly can’t presume to speak for anyone else, but personally, I’d rather be understood than eliminated. I’d rather be understood and accepted as a person who is a little different from the norm, but whose right to be here the world, to be myself, and take part in society in the way I wish is equally as valid as anyone else’s. I’d like to think this is what it is being prayed for, but I don’t know.

And then there is the jigsaw puzzle symbol itself. I know people don’t intend any harm in it, but am finding it increasingly offensive. As I’ve said before, it is ironic that when autistic people have difficulties understanding neurotypical people, we are simply pigeon-holed as ‘lacking empathy’, but when neurotypical people have difficulties understanding us, we are pigeon-holed as being ‘mysterious’. The deficit is seen to always lie with us. Such double standards are completely unacceptable. People quite rightly speak out strongly against the double standards in the way gay people versus straight people are treated, and the way women versus men are treated – memes fill Facebook about such things – but sadly the double standards in the attitudes towards autistic people versus neurotypical people remain largely unchallenged.

And even putting aside this double standard, labelling us as mysterious makes people lazy – we are simply seen as incomprehensible and strange, and people don’t bother really trying to understand us. ‘Oh, that’s just what autistic people do,’ I’ve heard people say about a certain behaviour, when I worked with autistic children and I questioned why a child was behaving in a certain way. The fact that autistic people often ‘do’ something doesn’t mean there is not a very rational reason behind it. I would argue that we are, in fact, incredibly straightforward. I hardly think anyone reading this blog could make a case for me being a mysterious jigsaw piece. I am a human being, same as all of us, who happens to have difficulties with multitasking, difficulties with organisation, and some sensory hypersensitivity.

To give an example – I’m sure we’ve all heard the stereotype that autistic people loathe change – that autistic people want to do the same thing over and over, have the same clothes, the same bed, etc. This is not looked into very deeply – it is not assumed to have any rational reason other than ‘Oh, autistic people hate change – they like everything to stay the same.’ With the subtext of ‘Yes, those silly, irrational autistic people! That’s just how they are – they’re somehow inferior and incapable of dealing with simple changes that the rest of us can easily manage.’ Now, I am currently in a position where I am living somewhere different, sleeping in a different bed with different bedding. And I am finding it incredibly different. You could write that off as: ‘Oh, that’s because autistic people hate change’, but let me first elaborate.

I have a lot of sensory hypersentivity. I hear very small noises, and wake up easily. Some noises are actually painful for me. I also feel labels in my clothes and they hurt me. I have spent many years making adjustments to my own environment to reduce pain and discomfort, and make it easier for me to sleep. Having finally found something that works, the thought of going through all that again is incredibly exhausting and disheartening. And this is a rationale that would be the same for everyone – autistic or non-autistic. If it took you a lot of pain and discomfort and effort – not to mention people deriding you and disbelieving you – to finally reach a simple state of getting your basic needs met, you would be very reluctant to have to change and do it all over again.

I don’t claim to speak on behalf of all autistic people, but I know quite a few for whom sensory hypersensitivity underlies their reasons for wanting to keep things as they are. And when I explain it this way, surely there is nothing mysterious about it. There is really no reason to see autistic people as mysterious beings – at least, no more mysterious than the rest of humankind.

For one thing, there are many articulate autistic people out there who write about what it’s like, in books and in blogs. I’ve noticed, even within the past year, a great increase in autism/Asperger blogs out there, and I feel greatly encouraged by that. But I wonder what it would take to get a significant proportion of the non-autistic world to read them. I notice for myself that the majority of my comments are from people who are also on the autism spectrum – who ‘get’ it, because they experience the same. It is a truly rewarding experience to have put something in words that others can relate to – but I also wish that more people who can’t automatically relate to it would read, purely with the motivation to understand. Sometimes I feel a little sad when I see the social media aflame with eloquent memes advocating women’s rights and gay rights, and nearly nothing on disability rights and awareness, and in particular autism rights and awareness. Except for the occasional meme with that wretched jigsaw puzzle piece on it, which really does nothing to promote awareness or equality at all. Am I the only autistic person who finds the symbol offensive? Is there not a better way we could be represented – one that doesn’t encourage a lazy ‘they’re just mysterious and we can’t understand their weird ways’ type of thinking?

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21 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on sonnolenta… and commented:
    I never gave this much thought until reading this, and I agree. It is offensive. For me, it implies that we are some sort of missing puzzle piece that would be best to find it’s place in the larger overall puzzle. And that doesn’t exactly help towards acceptance and understanding.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this! I agree very much with you, and I think you write it in a very clear and precise way. I am on the autism spectrum too and am glad that you point out these things and try to add nuances to the very broad ideas and myths about what autism is.

    Thank you!

  3. I have a daughter who has Aspherger’s. There are many challenges associated with it, but there is a beautiful and awe rendering side as well. I found your blog and Third Glance to be very helpful in understanding what she goes through so we can learn how to help minimize the challenges allowing the beauty to shine. Your blog is being read by people longing to understand! I know because I share it with grandparents and Aunts and parents and cousins of people that ask me questions about what it is like for her and our family. Share your stories about challenges and triumphs, parents of other children are leaning from them. The inspiring talents associated with the superior intelligence of people on the Austism Spectrum needs to be cultivated and nuturied not ridiculed and made to feel inferior.

  4. Thanks for writing this blog post. It makes a lot of sense!! I have AS and can relate to it completely.
    People do need to be more aware of how Asperger’s and autism works, so we won’t be dubbed as “mysterious” as you mentioned.
    May I refer to any of your blog posts for an Asperger’s documentary film I’m producing? You have some very good insight on these matters.

  5. Just thought I would let you know that I am not on the spectrum and have found this blog, and the many pieces written by people with an AS condition, very illuminating. I am a psychologist trying to offer useful advice and support to people who have an AS condition and their families.

  6. Hi! I’m an NT who reads blogs by people on the autism spectrum, and I agree with your frustration that few NTs seem to bother. I rarely comment because I have lots to learn and generally nothing to say. But there are so many reasons ppl who aren’t autistic ought to read & learn. So thank you for sharing.

  7. Might the jigsaw puzzle be an illustration of everyone (spectrum or not) coming together and making an effort to understand? To piece together the puzzle of understanding? Is it easier to be offended than it is to embrace a joint effort to understand? If I was offended by every ignorant person who didn’t understand my sensory processing issues or why bright light makes my whole body feel fatigued, I would end up losing the opportunity to connect with them and educate them. If ignorant people are pushed away by offended people then nobody benefits. I’m not saying it’s fair, I’m just making an observation.

    I really enjoy reading your blog, it’s very informative and I can relate to a lot of it.

    • It could be, but in reality I find it so often used to indicate that autistic people are a puzzle, and it does seem to perpetuate a ‘them and us’ attitude. I therefore don’t find it a helpful symbol, and I think it ends up being derogatory to autistic people. It is something I felt it important to speak up about, to show people a new perspective, because I don’t think many people have considered that angle before.

      I agree that being constantly offended can push people away, and can be an easy alternative to actually working for mutual understanding, but I also believe that expressing and explaining genuine offence can be incredibly helpful in communication and helping people see a new perspective, and can actually aid mutual understanding. As you’ll see from my blog as a whole, I put a lot of effort into understanding neurotypical people and helping them understand autistic people, and trying to bridge the divide that so often seems to occur. I am not someone who takes constant offence, and I often like to see the humour in things. However, I do feel strongly that the puzzle symbol is acting as a barrier and encouraging that divide, so I felt it important to speak up about it.

  8. Having completed the aspie test two days ago after struggling with the human race my entire life I have devoured your blog over the last couple of days in fits and spurts as it has been a very emotional ride. It is a relief to finally have an explanation as to why I find fitting in so impossible. I too have developed strategies to cope but it is never quite enough. Reading your words is life changing. We could be the same person! (Almost) thank you!

  9. Personally, I think it would be a good idea to have a picture of an entirely blue jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing as a picture on a T-shirt. Of course, the text underneath would say, “This is what the Neurodiversity Spectrum will become if Autism Speaks succeeds in its mission of genocide.” What do you think?

  10. About the puzzle piece you are dramatically overreacting. .. Why not take it to mean autism is a challenge like a puzzle? Theres a difference between expecting compassion and understanding and expecting everybody else to walk on eggshells about what symbols they use to decorate flyers. None of the autistic people I know would make a big deal about it =/

    • Because that is not what is meant by the jigsaw puzzle piece. It was created because people see autism and autistic people as puzzling, and this is still the meaning people give it. If I give the jigsaw puzzle a different meaning, that will make no difference to how others see it.

      As an autistic person myself, who also works with autistic children, I have experienced how the ‘autistic people are a puzzle’ mindset impacts on people’s attitudes towards autism and how they treat autistic people as a result. You are free to see my view as an overreaction, but I would disagree with you. Nor do I think my post is particularly dramatic.

      Maybe the autistic people you know haven’t thought about it this way before. Possibly if they read my post they might see my point.

  11. Hello, I’m Sarah, technically not NT, because I have bipolar. But I’m not on the spectrum. I found your blog while googling the meaning behind the puzzle piece, because it also bothers me. The jigsaw. I know it’s meant, in origin, to be a sign of hope and diversity. But the ones that make me uneasy are the missing puzzle pieces. I’m here to learn. I’m an au-mom and aunt, and friend, observing and attempting to be advocate neorodiversity.

    Anyway, I love this piece. I applaud you for it. And I’m going to share it with my friends, hoping, like you said that people with just a pure motivation to understand will read it, those are the ones that I am trying to reach.

  12. Hello!
    I’m an Asperger guy; I was searching for a symbol of AS and found your article. I’ve seen the symbol and, to be honest, I don’t find it offensive in any way. Let me explain:
    For me, puzzles are something that, to be completed, need care and patience, you need to feel the puzzle to be important to complete it, or at least, try to do it. I’m not saying that we’re a puzzle, of course we’re not, but for others, let’s say, “non-aspergers”, we’re a kind of, speaking about it as an autistic symbol.
    As an asperger syndrome, I find it like it’s ok, but just for now. I like to think that, since ours is such a wonderfull thing (Hey, Mozart, Beethoven and Bill Gates are ASPeople) we need something unique, a whole new thing just for us, because we ARE special people, in a good way, obviously.
    I’d like to say something more: I used to feel as a puzzle, and I know my parets thought I was one, in a way; yeah, we all people are different, but let’s face it, AS makes people more strange, to choice a random word to describe it.
    Being the “weird kid” of the class was horrible, because I said: What’s wrong? I don’t know why I am in this way, and nowadays I still think in that way sometimes: Why do I have this thing? My life would be easier if I didn’t have it! Certainly, it will, but it will be one as another, a bored one, and being a puzzle, sometimes, gives you advantages, and yes, some disadvantages.
    It’s just a matter of discover what works for you, and despite maybe you will be still being a puzzle, you’d be solved, but for yourself, that’s all you need, it’s like that for me and it’s working for me.
    Maybe the puzzle is not the best thing, but for me it’s okay, by now.

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