A few days ago, I came across a series of articles talking about how a number of people in the autism community no longer like the puzzle pieces as a symbol for autism. This honestly surprised me, as I wasn't aware of any negative connotations to the symbol.
To me, the collection of brightly coloured irregular shapes represents many things. First, it reminds me of the difference in how I see the world and my son sees the world. When I do a puzzle, I'm assembling an overall picture. When he does a puzzle, he is assembling a series of connecting shapes. I would have a lot of trouble with a puzzle like the ribbon above, but he would see it as perfectly normal. So it makes me remember that how he sees the world is different, but no less valid, than how I do.
Second, it symbolizes the many things that need to come together in order to help people with autism. Different people and therapies, times to push and times to accept, sensory enhancements and challenges, attitudes, explanations and tools. No one group, practice or therapy has all the answers and everyone's puzzle will look different, but it is possible to put it all together. Autism is a team challenge and requires not just a village, but an entire city of cooperation. (I realize this touches on the "cure" issue, that offends some people as it implies people with autism need to be fixed, but disregarding the challenges that many people with autism have is offensive to me, more on that later.)
Third, I like the bright colours because it stands out, much as people with autism do. But just as the jumble of colours might be initially offputting or confusing, as people become used to it, they can see the beauty and interesting parts. Those who first see my children might be worried or not sure how to react, but give them some time together, and they'll see the wonderful people underneath the surprise.
Now, some of the objections are valid. People complain that the puzzle (especially with the primary colours) is juvenile, either infantilizing adults with autism or ignoring them completely. Others dislike the symbology of a puzzle with a missing piece, implying there is something missing or needing to be fixed. Others feel that since autism is a spectrum, then the symbol should represent that (usually using a rainbow).
Then there are the objections that I have a problem with. A lot of the objections center around Autism Speaks, which uses a puzzle piece as its symbol. I dislike how Autism Speaks presents autism and their confrontational, melodramatic approach, but I also don't feel that one organization gets to co-opt the entire movement. If we have a problem with Autism Speaks, then we need to deal with them, rather than trying to come up with a new symbol (which they would inevitably pick up anyway).
And finally, there is the anti-cure crowd, which is mostly made up of high-functioning people with autism who resent the implication that their way of seeing the world is any less valid than neurotypicals. There's a valid issue there, but what bothers me is when they claim to speak for all people with autism. Someone who was able to learn to communicate and who can function independently in society has a very different view than those who need intensive help to learn even the basic skills of interaction and function. For that person to then judge the second (or the second's family) for using therapy and claiming that the therapy isn't necessary, that's offensive. To me, this is rather like someone on crutches claiming to speak for all people on the handicap spectrum and saying that ramps aren't necessary because he or she doesn't need to personally use a wheelchair.
In the end, I feel that puzzle is still a good symbol for people with autism and the challenge. Because, the most important aspect is that no piece is the same as any other, but that doesn't mean we can't all work together.