[Image: M.Remi Yergeau, a white person
with shoulder-length blond hair, holding a sign
that has a puzzle piece image with a red slash through it
and the wording, “People not puzzles.”]
Why was the study conducted?
They’re everywhere. On the lapels
of NCAA basketball coaches during the Final Four. On a FOX reporter’s bowtie
during the World Series. On bumper stickers, backpacks, bracelets, beer
koozies, tote bags, and the background
of a prime-time soap opera.
They are puzzle pieces intended to represent autism (and autistic
Symbolizing autism with a puzzle piece began with the
UK’s National Autistic Society:
“… designed by a [non-autistic] parent
… It first appeared on our stationary and then on our newsletter in April 1963.
Our Society was the first autistic society in the world, and our puzzle piece
has … been adopted by all the autistic societies which have followed.”
The puzzle piece was chosen, as
Helen Green Allison later related, “because it tells us something about
autism: our children are handicapped by a puzzling condition; this isolates
them from normal human contact and therefore they do not ‘fit in’.”
Evoking negativity was, therefore, the primary motivation
for using puzzle pieces to symbolize autism. In current day, many autistic and
non-autistic people (e.g., Kabie Brook, Judy Endow, Ruti
S. Wyatt, Ed
Edmunds, M. Remi Yergeau,
Turner) argue that puzzle pieces continue to evoke negativity.
people have suggested that puzzle
pieces instead evoke positivity or that the “positives
… outweigh the negatives.” Therefore, in a recent study (full manuscript here and data/stimuli here) Bev Harp, Jilana Boston, Jennifer Stevenson, Adam Raimond, and I empirically
investigated whether puzzle pieces evoke negativity or positivity in the
How was the study conducted?
With a sample of
400 members of the general public, we measured both their explicit biases and
their implicit biases toward puzzle pieces in general and autism
puzzle piece logos in particular. A bit over half our sample identified as men,
a bit under half identified as women, and around 1% identified outside the
gender binary. Almost all participants had lived in the United States for the
past five years, and they ranged in age from 20 to 75. About 0.5% identified as
having an autism spectrum diagnosis; 3% identified as working with autistic
persons; 12% as being a friend of an autistic person; and 15% as having an
We administered an implicit associations task, which is a speeded categorization task for
measuring implicit attitudes (including attitudes toward images of brands).
Participants rapidly categorized images of puzzle pieces and non-puzzle piece
shapes. On test trials, the puzzle pieces and shapes were paired with either
negative words (such as grief or agony) or positive words (such
as cheer or paradise). Categorizing puzzle pieces faster than
shapes when they were paired with negative words indicated greater implicit negativity.
administered an explicit associations task, which is a standard task for
assessing explicit attitudes toward brands. Without any time-pressure,
participants completed the two sentences: “When I see a puzzle piece, the first
few thoughts that come to my mind are ____” and “When I see a shape, the first
few thoughts that come to my mind are ____.” Participants were asked to list
five associations for puzzle pieces and five associations for shapes, and their
associations were later sorted into mutually exclusive categories (e.g., negative
associations, such as “problem,” “bad,” and “sad,” or positive associations, such
as “fun,” “happy,” and “good”).
What were the study’s results?
The study’s results
demonstrated that puzzle pieces evoke negativity from the public—both
implicit negativity and explicit negativity. During the implicit associations
task, participants categorized puzzle pieces significantly faster than they
categorized shapes when the puzzle pieces or shapes were paired with negative
words (t(399)=-7.661, p<.001).
A standardized metric
known as the Implicit Association Test score also demonstrated that participants’
implicit bias against puzzle pieces, both generic puzzle pieces and those used as
autism logos was significantly negative (t(399)=-5.357, p<.001).
During the explicit
associations task, participants provided considerably more negative explicit
associations to puzzle pieces than to shapes (z=4.693, p<.001,
d=0.491). In fact, half the participants’ negative versus positive
explicit associations to puzzle pieces were negative (in contrast, only a third
of their explicit associations to shapes were negative).
explicitly associated puzzle pieces, even generic puzzle pieces, with
incompleteness, imperfection, and oddity.
What policies do the results suggest?
results suggest that if an organization wants to evoke negativity from the
public, using puzzle pieces is the way to go. Puzzle pieces evoke negativity. However,
if an organization wants to evoke positivity about autism, puzzle-piece imagery
is probably not the way to go.
As autistic author, artist, and international speaker, Judy Endow, MSW,
has concluded, because “of the negative message about autism the general
public now associates with the puzzle piece, any positive programming on behalf
of supporting autistics is undermined by use of the puzzle piece logo.”