Right now, across the country, across the world, people with Autism/Asperger’s are arguing amongst each other. And it has to STOP.
There is a large divide in the autistic community. Many people who have autism/Aspergerer’s feel that Autism Speaks (A$) does not speak for us. I empathize and understand completely. Autism Speaks strongly promotes the idea of a “cure” over the idea of acceptance. They have no one with Autism on their board of directors. They produce advertisements, small films, etc. about what a burden autistic people are to society. I could go on and on about why there is no love for A$ among the autistic community, but I won’t. A simple Google search will display multiple blogs and many articles that have already been written on this subject, so I am not going to go into it here. What I am going to talk about is the divide among autistics because of Autism Speaks and why this divide works in their favor.
World Autism Awareness Day is April 2nd. Since 2010, Autism Speaks has been telling the world to “Light it up Blue!” for Autism. Major landmarks in the US and all over the world light up blue starting on the eve of April 1st throughout April 2nd to show their support/autism awareness. It has become quite popular. The campaign has been successful. All over the world when people hear “Light it up blue” they think of autism.
Online on different social media sites I see groups of autistics arguing over the Light it Up Blue campaign. In protest of Autism Speaks, some groups proclaim we should “Light it up GOLD!” Another proclaimed “Light it up in Rainbow Colors!” Other groups are holding polls to determine exactly which color we should “Light it Up” (as if anyone is asking us.)
This same debate continues over the iconic puzzle piece that is used to represent Autism. (Even though Autism Speaks was not the FIRST organization to use the puzzle piece to represent Autism, they are the most recognizable.) Again, across the interweb in different groups autistics are arguing with each other over this symbol. They argue our symbol should be a ribbon or some other icon. Then the debate continues on what color the ribbon should be. Not blue. Heaven forbid.
While they’re arguing over what color to light it up and whether or not the puzzle piece should represent us, I’m just puzzled.
Don’t they see what they’re doing?
By arguing amongst each other we are failing. And we are failing miserably. Here is why:
Alltistics/NTs/Neurotypical people all over the WORLD are already familiar with the puzzle piece and they LOVE it. They don’t care what we think of the puzzle piece. I’m a nurse. I have a puzzle piece badge holder. It was a gift from a friend/coworker who wanted to show her support for my Asperger’s. She has no personal connection with autism, but when she saw a badge holder with 4 puzzle pieces inside a heart, she immediately thought “Autism” and bought it for me.
I am so grateful she did. I can’t count the number of positive conversations I have had with patients and family members about autism because they recognized the icon.
Just for a moment, let’s pretend “Autism” is a brand name. When people who don’t have a personal connection to autism think of autism, what is the first thing they think of? The puzzle piece. The entire World thinks “autism” when they see the puzzle piece. Whether we like it or not, we have a logo that is already recognized all around the world!
We’re wasting valuable time and resources trying to change an already beloved icon. I asked people (non-autistic AND autistic) what the puzzle piece meant to them. Even among actual autistics, only a sparse few knew that the original logo featured a crying child and signified that people with autism don’t “fit”. Instead people thought it meant we are like a puzzle that is in need of being solved. Others said we are a small piece in a bigger picture. Others said it meant we were unique. As a person with Asperger’s I have always found that the puzzle piece was a very illogical choice if the original goal was to show that we don’t “fit” because a puzzle piece’s only job IS to fit. And you know what happens when you try to force a puzzle piece to fit where it doesn’t belong? It damages the piece(s) involved.
While autistics argued yay or nay to the puzzle piece, one thing was consistent: all of the non-autistics I spoke with LIKED the puzzle piece. The only divide I saw was among us – autistic people. There were so many reasons why some autistics liked/disliked the puzzle piece. It doesn’t change the fact that the entire WORLD thinks “autism” when they see the puzzle piece. The energy we spend arguing over whether or not we need to fight to change the symbol is wasted energy. Instead of trying to change an already world-famous symbol, we might try changing our perspective about what it means instead. Like so many others, I had no idea that the original concept meant we didn’t fit. THIS is what I thought the puzzle piece meant. I still do.
The same goes for “lighting it up blue (LIUB)”. When I have talked with non-autistic people about the light it up blue campaign they say it means “Autism”. They don’t say “Autism Speaks”. The truth is, unless they have a personal connection with autism, the LIUB campaign is just a flash in the pan on their facebook wall. They comment “Yeah, I saw that big ferris wheel was all lit up for autism”. They really have no clue. Everything is just Autism to them. Not Autism Speaks. Just Autism.
Divided, we fall. When I see the facebook groups/social media sites with autistic people viciously arguing over the puzzle piece and the color blue, I cringe. I am ashamed. What do we look like to the outside world? A bunch of people who can’t even agree on a color? A bunch of people arguing over a puzzle piece logo. To the outside world, it looks frivolous. There are already so many stigmas about autism. Autism Speaks encourages people to think we are child-like, immature, and not able to make our own decisions. We are reinforcing this belief when non-autistic people go online and see we can’t even agree on a color. We’re fighting against each other over a color and we wonder why we can’t get people to take us seriously.
We need to refocus our energy! I can’t say it enough. We’re arguing over a color. A color. While we are doing this, we remain divided. You know who ISN’T divided? Autism Speaks. They keep moving forward and campaigning for more money while we sit around fighting over the color blue. It needs to stop.
Instead of fighting an uphill battle to change the beloved puzzle piece or light it up green, purple, or cotton candy colored, we need to use that energy to change what really needs to be changed: Autism Speaks. In today’s social-media inspired world, companies are bending to public pressure. We need to spend our energy educating friends/families/non-autistics how Autism Speaks is hurting us. We need to put pressure on A$ to CHANGE their policies. CHANGE their practices. We need to encourage them to truly become what they say they are – a voice for people with autism.
Because in the end – changing the puzzle piece and changing the color mean absolutely nothing if we don’t change the biggest source of false information on autism.