April is autism awareness month. I tend to have mixed feelings about participating, but this year Sonny’s all in. He’s making a series of videos about his perspectives a young adult on the spectrum, so we’re having more conversations about autism than usual.
“Hey Mom,” he said, a couple of days ago. “Are you Team Puzzle or Team Infinity?”
“Ummm…I’m not sure what that question means,” I replied.
“Which autism symbol, the puzzle piece or infinity sign?” He showed me some artwork a friend had posted on Facebook, a big rainbow-colored infinity symbol beside a little blue puzzle piece with a slash through it.
I felt a twinge of guilt about my ignorance. Admittedly I have a rather poor visual memory and often have trouble with pictographs and icons. This morning, as is not unusual, I opened Safari twice while attempting to check my email. One’s a circle, one’s a leaning rectangle, but they’re both mostly blue. If I ever manage to distinguish between Camera and Photos on my first try, it will be a day of rejoicing.
If I had been still active on autism parenting sites I’d have been more up to date. I discovered online support groups when Sonny was about 11. Life with a young child on the spectrum had been isolating, as many of the moms in my suburb who had neurotypical kids acted as if autism were contagious and shut us out of routine social activities. It was a relief to find a place where people empathized and gave advice without a sneer at my parenting skills. Many of us parents eventually realized that we were on the spectrum ourselves, and that also led to a new level of self-understanding and acceptance.
When I was active on those sites, the puzzle piece was the dominant autism symbol. It had originated in the UK in 1963 with the National Autism Society (NAS). The NAS no longer uses this symbol, and given that its puzzle piece featured a drawing of a crying child, that’s a good thing. In 1999 the Autism Society started to use a logo with colorful puzzle pieces formed into a rainbow ribbon, rainbow being chosen as a reference to the autism spectrum. Autism Speaks (AS), an organization founded in 2005, uses a puzzle piece colored blue as its logo. The blue was intended to suggest calmness and acceptance. It’s perhaps emblematic of AS that its cofounder, Suzanne Wright, took credit for the puzzle piece becoming a worldwide symbol of autism, despite the fact that it had already been in use for 42 years.
Autism Speaks is, to put it mildly, a problematic organization. People correctly accuse it of pathologizing all autism as a disease to be cured or eliminated. Many in the autism community see AS as more supportive towards distressed neurotypical parents who want their children to behave “normally” than towards the children themselves. That’s a valid criticism.
I don’t think the world would be better off with no autistic people. Many scientists, musicians, and artists have been on the spectrum. I imagine that some things would have been easier for me if I’d been born neurotypical, but I don’t know that I’d be happier or a more productive member of society.
Many on the spectrum despise the AS logo for reasons unrelated to the organization. The blue suggests depression. The shape implies that autism is a problem that needs to be solved and that autistic people don’t fit in. I had taken a different message from the puzzle piece, which was that every piece of a puzzle is as important as the others. I may be a minority of one in that view. In the course of writing this blog I discovered that there are some jigsaw puzzles on the market that purposefully throw in a few extra pieces that won’t fit, which was disquieting. In any case, Autism Speaks is so strongly associated with the puzzle logo at this point that I was delighted when Sonny educated me about an alternative.
The infinity symbol has no missing pieces. It’s mysterious, like the universe, like a brain, and understanding rather than solution. but not necessarily a thing that needs to be solved. Better understood, sure. It can be any color; though I like the rainbow versions the best. The symbol also suggests motion, which I hope could remind neurotypical people that people with autism have active brains. I’ve been in far too many conversations where Sonny was treated like a piece of furniture—something to talk about, not to.
“Definitely Team Infinity,” I said.
“Me, too,” said Sonny.