Watch the video and read on to learn more about our campaign discouraging the use of the puzzle piece as a symbol for autism.

Make sure to share our social media posts using the hashtag #ParkThePuzzlePiece.

Video description: Headshots of six professional people play with uplifting, calming music. With each person, a new stereotype about autism perpetuated by the puzzle piece appears (per the article below). A hand holds a puzzle piece up to the light with the text “not symbolic of autism”. The video fades out to the text “This Autism Acceptance Month”. Music stops and “#ParkThePuzzlePiece” appears before neurodiversikey®’s logo.

Without fail, April comes around each year promising brighter days, but brings buckets of seasonal gloom. For the neurodivergent – specifically autistic – community, Autism Acceptance Month precipitates its own unique ‘April showers’ – the endless downpour of puzzle pieces as a symbol for autism. Messages of support for and solidarity with the autistic community are misguidedly blighted by a host of stereotypes and misconceptions thanks to what – at first glance – appears to be an innocuous everyday item.

The use of the puzzle piece in the context of autism is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it restricted to the month of April. It began with the National Autistic Society’s 1963 logo – a sad, white child wiping their eye, inside a dark green and black puzzle piece. The logo was based on and perpetuated a number of negative stereotypes, including the first in our campaign video – tragedy.


Not a tragedy.

The NAS logo was conceptualised at a time when autism was perceived as a tragedy, sufferance, and burden. Autism was predominantly seen as life-limiting and warranting institutionalisation over inclusion. The child not only encapsulates pain and misery but is encapsulated by the puzzle piece. These negative connotations continue to be associated with the puzzle piece, arguably increasingly so, as a result of its heavy usage by organisations known for actively perpetuating these harmful stereotypes. (Grinker, Mandell 2015)

Autistic people are not tragedies.


Not incomplete.

Representing autism with a puzzle piece infers an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, and that autistic people are therefore not whole, but “inherently disordered, unpredictable… unknown” and even “broken apart” (McGuire 2012). In its reinforcement of this deficit-view of autism, the puzzle piece leaves no room for strengths or differences, and is therefore inherently incompatible with the neurodiversity movement or paradigm. Instead, it bolsters the medical-model’s understanding of autism, which brings us on to the next stereotype.

Autistic people are not incomplete.


Not a problem to solve.

“When faced with a puzzle, we solve it – or at least try to.” (McGuire 2012)

The puzzle piece implies that autism is a problem which can and should be solved or cured. This concept is not unique to the puzzle piece, and is inseparable from the medical-model’s conceptualisation of autism as pathologically abnormal.

“[The puzzle piece] comes to represent the hopeful possibility that the disorderly body of “autism” might be modified, rehabilitated, and the orderly and expected body of “non-autism” – the metaphorical “picture on the box” – might be recreated, or …  “recovered.” “(McGuire 2012)

The hope for a cure or solution for autism is steeped in assumptions that neurotypical neurocognitive functioning and ways of being are not only ‘normal’, but superior and preferable. Autism is conceived as a deviance from neurotypicality which can and must be reverted.

“Recall that once a jigsaw puzzle is solved, it ceases to be a puzzle; it is instead transformed into a picture.” (McGuire 2012)

Curing or ‘solving’ autism, means “the destruction not only of [autistic] personhood but of the positive characteristics of autism that contribute to human diversity and creativity” (Grinker, Mandell 2015). It means the eradication of autism, and therefore of autistic people. The puzzle piece is a eugenicist symbol.

Autistic people are not a problem to solve.


Not a misfit.

“[T]here is a “right” fit and a “wrong” fit. For a jigsaw puzzle to be complete, the pieces must be tessellated, that is to say, the pieces must come together in such a way that there are neither overlaps, nor gaps.” (McGuire 2012)

If the jigsaw puzzle is society and the lone puzzle piece is autism, autistic people are depicted as being misfits, socially isolated or rejected, or ‘othered’. The puzzle piece characterises autistic people as being inherently misshapen and incapable of fitting in or socialising, upholding neuronormative notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Not only does the lone puzzle piece ‘other’ autistic people, but it inaccurately characterises autistic people as homogenous. 

“[The puzzle piece] tells us that [autistic people] are disabled by a puzzling condition which serves to isolate them from typical human contact. As a result, [autistic people] do not fit in.” (McGuire 2012)

Again, the puzzle piece perpetuates the medical model: this time identifying the autistic person as the source of their own social isolation and exclusion. Society’s exclusion of autistic people is attributed to inherent autistic non-conformance. In the case of the puzzle piece, this is a physical non-conformance – its inability to physically fit in with other pieces. For autistic people, this perceived non-conformance extends beyond the physical into the neurocognitive, encompassing all domains of life. This misattribution also serves to deny autistic sociality (Grinker, Mandell 2015) and fuel the stereotype that autistic people are inherently asocial – a misconception that has been debunked in recent years by, for example, the Double Empathy Problem (Milton 2012).

The misfit stereotype allows society to take a back seat, deny responsibility, and refrain from accommodating and including autistic people – because autism is, after all, the problem.

Autistic people are not misfits.


Not a source of entertainment.

Naturally, the puzzle piece, being a toy or game, is a source of entertainment. This connotation is problematic for a number of reasons.

The first is that autistic people are often subjected to bullying, harassment, and discrimination. Many perpetrators see autistic people as a source of entertainment, enjoy weaponising autistic differences, and thrive off goading and eliciting a reaction from them.

Secondly, although jigsaw puzzles are available for all ages, they are typically associated with children. When employed as a symbol for autism, the puzzle piece is frequently adorned with the bright primary colours commonly used for children’s toys, only strengthening this connection. There are many issues with this association. Autistic adults are frequently infantilised in their day-to-day lives, as well as in wider society such as in the media, which commonly represents autistic people as children or childlike adults. Additionally, it allows the misconception that only children can be autistic to fester. Finally, it contributes indirectly to the silencing of autistic voices by deeming them too childish or immature to listen to.

Given the serious implications of undiagnosed and un- or under-supported autism, not to mention the impacts of for example, the stigma, discrimination, and exclusion autistic people face, the puzzle piece is a highly inappropriate symbol. Using a source of entertainment to illustrate autism is not only inaccurate, but trivialising. Autistic people are at an increased risk of mental ill health, including as a result of masking and camouflaging.

Autistic people are not a source of entertainment.


Not puzzling.

“The puzzle’s possibility – its promise – is that it can be solved by logically uncovering and piecing together the pieces, thus revealing some underlying, sensible and originary order.” (McGuire 2012)

The depiction of autistic people as puzzling is rooted in neuronormativity, and highlighted by the puzzle piece.  Viewing autistic people as puzzling not only locates the perceived problem in autistic people, but marks autistic people out as inherently senseless, illogical and disordered. This is not only deeply stigmatising, but drives the silencing of autistic voices by implying they are invalid or meaningless, and therefore powers epistemic injustice. The ‘puzzling autistic’ stereotype is in itself puzzling, given autistic self-advocates have been shouting from the rooftops – very clearly and coherently – for decades.

Perceiving autistic people as puzzling enables society to scapegoat autism as a “baffling condition” (Grinker, Mandell 2015) as opposed to turning attention to society’s part, which further perpetuates other stereotypes. There is however, an ever-growing body of evidence challenging this. For example, the double empathy problem highlights that the communication problem between autistic and neurotypical people is not an autistic problem, but a two way communication mismatch. 

Autistic people are not puzzling.


The puzzle piece is problematic in a number of ways, many of which we have not touched upon.

The puzzle piece is not symbolic of autism.

This Autism Acceptance Month #ParkThePuzzlePiece – permanently.

Grinker R., Mandell D. (2015) “Notes on a puzzle piece.” Autism 19: 643–645.

McGuire A. (2012) “On the “puzzle of autism” and the incompleteness of autism awareness.” Journal on Developmental Disabilities 18: 96–100.

Picture of neurodiversikey®


31 March 2024

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