Symbols for Autism
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Symbols for Autism

When it comes to symbols for autism, most people immediately think of the blue puzzle piece or the rainbow puzzle piece ribbon, but there also exist a variety of alternatives that have been proposed by various people in the autistic community. Despite their mainstream popularity, the puzzle piece is troublesome and nearly universally loathed by autistic people for reasons that I will go into shortly, and while the rainbow infinity symbol (seen on most pages of this section) is by far the most popular one out there right now, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a quick look at the various other ones that have been put forth.

Rainbow Infinity Symbol - The preferred symbol for most of the autistic community (including, obviously, myself), the rainbow-coloured infinity symbol celebrates the infinite diversity of the autism spectrum and directly attacks the widespread notion that autistic people can be pegged to any specific stereotype.

A popular saying in the autistic community is "if you've met one autistic person, you've met one autistic person". No doubt a response to irritating common remarks such as "you don't look autistic", "but my third cousin Winifred is autistic and she's nothing like you", or "oh you're autistic, so you're like the autistic character in that one show!". The rainbow spectrum and infinity symbol both serve as intuitive reminders that the autism spectrum is infinitely diverse and includes people of both sexes and all manner of backgrounds. And of course, that the spectrum covers anything from people fully able to mask as neurotypical, to otherwise intelligent and capable people who struggle immensely in some areas, to people who are completely unable to live a normal life.

It is important to note that for decades after it was first given a name, autism diagnoses were limited to one portion of the spectrum, which is now classified as "classical autism". It was not until 1994 that autism was actually formally recognised as a spectrum and that Asperger's syndrome was included in the DSM.

Moreover, it is becoming increasingly accepted that the "high-functioning" and "low-functioning" labels that were used in the past to categorise autistic people are unhelpful at best because the spectrum is vastly more complicated than that. Many autistic people are denied accommodations or other assistance because they are highly intelligent, even though they may have grave daily struggles stemming from issues such as dyspraxia or autistic inertia.

Even today, there exists mounds of disinformation and stigma about autism derived from outdated information and the rainbow infinity symbol is an excellent reminder that autistic people are all unique and cannot be grouped together into any stereotype. Every autistic person exists in their own unique place on the infinite spectrum, and has different strengths, different weaknesses, and different challenges.

Puzzle Piece - Although it is easily the most mainstream symbol for autism, the puzzle piece is generally reviled in the autistic community for a plethora of reasons. Perhaps the most obvious one is that the symbol, which was created by a neurotypical named Gerald Gasson back in 1963 when little understanding of autism existed, falsely gives the impression that autism and autistic people are some mystery that needs to be "solved". This is hardly the case - the Intense World theory has done an incredible job of explaining autism and its characteristics based on the fundamental differences between autistic and neurotypical brains.

In addition to the original reasoning for the logo now being factually inaccurate, the logo also carries a number of other, perhaps accidental, implications. The nature of the puzzle piece implies that autistic people are somehow "incomplete" or are missing something fundamental that other humans have, and thus need to be cured. Additionally, the blue colour that the symbol is usually assigned promotes the (wholly) false notion that autism is a male phenomenon and nonexistent in women and girls. Many people also argue that blue also represents melancholy and thus reinforces the archaic and offensive notion that autism is a "tragedy".

It has also been argued that the childish nature of the puzzle piece furthers the idea that autism only affects children and that people somehow "grow out of it" with age. This is an unspoken belief that harms tens of millions of autistic adults by preventing them from getting the support they need, or even a diagnosis in some countries!

Additionally, while it was created 40 years prior to the organisation being founded, the puzzle piece is now famous for being the logo of Autism Speaks - a hateful, neurotypical-led "charity" that claims to exist in order to help autistic people, while labeling the very existence of autistic people a "tragedy" out of the other side of its mouth, and conducting research to "cure" (genocide) autism. An excellent example of Autism Speaks' true face is a 2006 documentary they produced called Autism Every Day, which features a scene where a woman openly talks about wanting to murder her autistic daughter while said daughter is in the room.

In short, despite how mainstream it is as a symbol for autism, the puzzle piece is soundly rejected by the vast majority of actually autistic people due to being an anachronism saddled with harmful and archaic misconceptions and sentiments about autism.

Rainbow Puzzle Piece Ribbon. - A descendant of the dreaded puzzle piece, the rainbow puzzle piece ribbon was invented by the Autism Society in 1999 to symbolise autism awareness. Per the organisation's website, the puzzle pieces and various colours are meant to represent the complexity and diversity of the autistic spectrum and the people within it, and the brightness is meant to represent hope that autistic people can lead happy lives on their own terms.

This statement would be very benevolent and innocuous, were it not also clearly stated where said hope is derived from. To quote the website itself: "hope that through increased awareness of autism, and through early intervention and access to appropriate services/supports, people with autism will lead full lives able to interact with the world on the own terms." Early intervention in question usually refers to harmful so-called "therapies" such as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) which torturously train autistic children to act neurotypical at all costs.

Despite its misguided origin, this symbol enjoys a noticeably better reputation in the autistic community than its predecessor, and to the Autism Society's credit, they include a number of autistic opinions on the symbol on their page about it, not all of which are rosy. In my personal view, it is a step in the right direction but still severely misguided and tainted with its association to the puzzle piece of old. At best, it is an unpleasant compromise between the dreaded puzzle piece and the sublime rainbow infinity symbol.

Light It Up Red - The colour red became formally associated with autism as a result of a 2015 campaign known as "Light it Up Red", which was organised to counter Autism Speaks' "Light it Up Blue" campaign and push for autism acceptance instead of just awareness. In contrast to the depressing (and traditionally masculine) shade of blue that Autism Speaks uses to represent autism, red is a colour that signifies passion, love, and aggression. The former two qualities befit the wonderful passion that autistic people so often exhibit for their hobbies and interests, while the latter befits the campaign being a protest against decades of misinformation and stigma against autistic people.

Cats - Cats have, as far as I am aware, never been used as a symbol for autism, aside from possibly a few obscure cases. However, I daresay the vast majority of autistic people are fervent cat lovers (guilty as charged), and a great many relate and even identify strongly with cats (guilty again).

None of this is really surprising. Cats make the perfect companion for autistic people due to being loving, highly intelligent beings with whom the autistic person shares a mutually acknowledged communication barrier. Unlike neurotypicals, who struggle to understand autistic people and too often mistakenly try to analyse autistic behaviours and communication through a neurotypical lens, cats are more than willing to meet autistics halfway and adjust their own communication to accommodate them.

However, while some may make this same argument for dogs, what really sells cats as a viable symbol for autism is the great many uncanny similiarities between cats and autistics, a phenomenon with enough meat to warrant an entire famous children's book. From our shared aversion to eye contact, to our skittishness and infamous fear of loud noises, to our aloof nature (except to the few beings that we love and trust), to our ability to focus on the same thing for hours without becoming bored, there are many similiarities that we share with our feline siblings that make them an ideal symbol for our neurotype.

Additionally, much like autistic people are often mistakenly accused of lacking empathy, being incapable of loving, or being narcissistic because we do not show our love for others in expected ways, cats have long suffered similiar slander. While anyone who has ever had a cat is aware of their bottomless capacity for love, many dog lovers expect cats to show affection the way in typically canine ways and look down on them for not doing so. Much the same, autistic people have fundamentally different "love languages" than the neurotypical ones that are widely considered to be the only valid ones.

Autistics, like cats, also do not feel a need to express many feelings that neurotypicals do, and this often extends to not routinely affirming their continued love for their spouse or lover, viewing it as unnecessary since they had already previously expressed it.

Both cats and autistic people are also notorious for detesting being told to do anything for no apparent reason. In the case of cats, this has also led scientists to drastically underestimate feline intelligence, because this tendency meant it was impossible to get them to cooperate in scientific studies. Autistic people, of course, have also suffered a storied history of being misinterpreted as mentally deficient, although for different reasons than cats.

Issues such as dyspraxia, behaviours such as stimming, or even simply the stigma of being autistic are all enough to cause an autistic person to be labeled mentally deficient in the minds of some neurotypicals in spite of any evidence to the contrary. Many intelligent autistic people have even found themselves suddenly being condescended to or treated as inferior after revealing their diagnosis in spite of never being treated any differently beforehand.

Au/Gold - Although significantly rarer in usage than either blue or red, gold has nonetheless emerged as a strong contender among a small portion of autistics for being a symbol for autism due to the pun inherent in the chemical symbol for gold being the same as the first two letters in the word "autism". Although lacking any direct meaning to autism beyond the pun, gold is symbolic of valuable things, and some consider it was an uplifting symbol for autism that counters the harmful notion about autistic people being "burdens" or "less than" and seeks to instead focus on the boons of the neurotype.

Gold as a symbol for autism was first used in 2012 by a group of autistic people organising on Facebook to push autism acceptance to counter the mainstream narratives of Autism Speaks. They founded a group called the Autistic Union and used the addition of "Âû" to their names on social media, along with the hashtag #LightItUpGold to help fellow supporters and members identify each other.

Beyond its original, intended use, the colour gold and the Au symbol could be a preferred symbol for some autistics due to being more discrete than the colourful rainbow infinity symbol and the mainstream puzzle piece.

Opinions on the most fitting symbol for autism are as varied as the spectrum itself, and while almost all autistic people detest the mainstream puzzle piece logos and a great many love the rainbow infinity symbol, there exists no solid consensus either way. With the rise of advocacy by actually autistic people online, it is my hope that the puzzle piece logos will disappear from use forever due to their insulting connotations and negative historical associations. Nonetheless, it is ultimately up to every individual autistic person to decide what they feel more comfortable associating with.