I see this a lot in parenting circles: “autism parents” looking for puzzle piece shirts, hats, blankets, pillows, all supposedly for their kids. I’ve seen ads shared for stuffed animals with puzzle piece emblems stitched into the bellies.
Most people are probably not aware–it’s a symptom of how disconnected autism conversation is from autistic people–but a majority of autistics actually find the puzzle imagery offensive. Because we’re not puzzles to be solved, we’re not pieces needing a better fit, and we’re certainly not “missing” anything. We’re just here, existing in our bodies, existing in our minds, like everyone else.
I’m autistic, and seeing puzzle piece t-shirts on a five year old is heartbreaking. It doesn’t feel empowering. It doesn’t feel supportive. It feels the same way it feels when I see young children wearing a political candidate’s campaign gear: exploitative.
Children are not here for our advertisements. Autistic bodies are not here to be draped with our agendas, even if we think it’s “for our own good.” We can decide that for ourselves. If a kid is too young to make an informed decision about that–if they’re too young to understand why most of the people who think the way they do actually don’t like that imagery, if they’re too young to understand why “awareness” is something you’re fighting for–they’re too young to wear it.
I choose whether and when to disclose being autistic based on a number of factors: Is this someone I will interact with again? Is this someone I want to engage in a conversation with? Will I be comfortable answering this person’s questions? Do I trust them to treat me fairly, if they know? Will telling them I’m autistic better inform the way they interact with me, or my kids?
Disability is personal, and sometimes it’s private. Other people don’t get to make those decisions for us.
These items aren’t always meant to be displayed publicly; there are puzzle piece themed blankets for children, weighted or regular. But does any kid actually want that? Really? More than a Minecraft blanket? More than Mickey Mouse or zoo animals or construction vehicles? Some kid out there probably does, but certainly not enough for an entire market based around it. Why can’t we have things that reflect our interests, rather than our caregiver’s?
I think, or at least hope, that the vast majority of those choosing these items have good intentions. That they’re proud of their children for being who they are, and want to encourage the kids to be proud of themselves, too. But it’s hard to do that with a symbol rejected by most of the community we’re trying to support. It’s hard to cheer individuality and personhood while overriding our ability to make informed choices. It’s hard to demand respect for our differences while treating us as billboards.
Maybe the best way to relay the message that autistics are more than a diagnosis isn’t about t-shirts or bumper stickers, but in actually respecting us as people.