A Better Puzzle Analogy

The puzzle piece is used to represent autism, as decided by non-autistic parents of autistic children. The origin of the puzzle piece metaphor is to illustrate that autistic people are missing a crucial piece in themselves and need to be fixed, or put together.

I can’t help but wonder if this ideology originates from what ABA founder Ole Ivar Lovaas had to say about autistic people:

“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.”

Yikes on forking bikes.

Members of the autistic community have openly rejected the puzzle piece as proper representation of autism.

Members of the autism community see no harm because non-autistic people do not comprehend language literally and think there is nothing harmful about the puzzle piece.

The autistic community is comprised solely of autistic people. The autism community is comprised of non-autistic “autism moms”, “autism dieticians”, “autism professionals”, “autism experts”, allies to the autistic community, and a few autistic people (usually those who prefer person-first language (PFL) or autistic parents of autistic children).

The logical fallacy of using a puzzle piece to symbolize autism

The real missing piece to the puzzle is the double empathy problem.

Non-autistic people struggle to empathize with autistic people due to different perceived life experiences.

Likewise, autistic people struggle to empathize with non-autistic people for the same reason.

Neither are wrong — they just can’t empathize properly to understand each other.

Society doesn’t create special symbols to illustrate the struggle to empathize with people from different ethnic cultures, so why do people outside of autistic culture insist on using the puzzle piece to illustrate what is actually the double empathy problem?

The “life” puzzle

Everyone is working on their own puzzle. Everyone has different variables, and each life puzzle looks different.

Let’s zoom in on what a life puzzle might look like for an autistic person and a non-autistic person.

Non-autistic, primarily neurotypical individuals, have most — if not all — of the pieces they need to survive in this world, thanks to their neurotype.

Autistic and similarly neurodivergent individuals have pieces to a life puzzle that looks completely different from the life puzzle of neurotypical people.

When non-autistic people try to help autistic people put their life puzzle together, non-autistic people are trying to fit their own puzzle pieces where they just don’t go.

Cat puzzle vs tree puzzle

To avoid a lot of confusion, let’s say the autistic life puzzle is a cat and make the non-autistic life puzzle a tree.

Non-autistic people are trying to put together a cat puzzle with tree puzzle pieces. They don’t understand why it doesn’t work, because their life puzzle is a tree.

Autistic kids are trying to put together a cat and tree puzzle, using the pieces of each, but the pieces are not divided. They may or may not know they are actually dealing with a cat puzzle, and they probably don’t know anyone else who has a cat puzzle because everyone else has tree puzzles. They also don’t know why they have so many more pieces to put together than non-autistic people, who are quick to piece together their tree puzzles.

Eventually, autistic people reach a point in their life where they realize they don’t have all the tree puzzle pieces, but they do have all the cat puzzle pieces. They start putting together the cat puzzle and putting aside the tree puzzle pieces.

This is essentially the double empathy problem.

Non-autistic people struggle to empathize with autistic people because of different perceived life experiences.

Autistic people struggle to empathize with non-autistic people for the same reason.

The double empathy problem is also why many neurotypical people consider neurodivergent people’s stories and experiences as things that could not have possibly happened — because, per their perception of what life is like, that kind of thing is impossible.

Growing up, I felt like I was piecing together both a cat puzzle and a tree puzzle.

Autistic masking feels a lot like putting a cat puzzle together, but trying to make it seem like a tree puzzle by forcing cat puzzle pieces to work with the tree puzzle pieces. They don’t fit together.

Even though people tried to give me tree pieces, my own puzzle didn’t come together. Then I met people who also had cat puzzles — and people who had turtle puzzles, horse puzzles and even space puzzles!

Only in autism burnout am I realizing that I don’t have to build the tree puzzle. There’s nothing wrong about living a life that has cat puzzle pieces. I don’t have to do anything with the tree puzzle, because it was never mine to begin with.

Life is the real puzzle. Autism, and other types of neurodiversity, is not the puzzle.

The only missing answer ever has always been the double empathy problem, but now we have that answer.

Continuing to use the puzzle piece to symbolize autism only drives business to autism organizations that use it — and they all have a bad reputation.

I’m not that great at completing analogies or metaphors, so this post is definitely half-baked — but I do hope it helps shine a light on the double empathy problem and why autistic people are not missing anything.

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