Friday 8 September 2017

On puzzle pieces and autism

At first reading I was a little confused by the paper published by Morton Ann Gernsbacher and colleagues [1] talking about how puzzle pieces used as part of various organisations insignia concerned with autism might stir up the wrong kind of sentiments about the diagnosis. Confused because, with all the pressing needs related to autism research and practice - diagnosis, services, comorbidities, quality of life, happiness! - it seemed a little trivial to publish a research paper on what symbols an organisation might wish to choose and their subsequent connotations.

With a little more thought, my opinion of this research softened slightly as I can see how there might be some important psychological forces at work based on the imagery used to represent autism. Indeed, the puzzle piece and autism has been the topic of quite a few discussions in various quarters (see here) reflective of how some views and opinions about autism have changed down the years.

On this particular research occasion authors questioned some 400 people about the associations the general public might make regarding the use of the puzzle piece in the context of autism. They concluded that: "Puzzle pieces, both those used as autism logos and those used more generically, evoked negative implicit associations... and negative explicit associations" onward to associations with words like "incompleteness, imperfection, and oddity." Authors even concluded that: "If an organization's intention for using puzzle-piece imagery is to evoke negative associations, our results suggest the organization's use of puzzle-piece imagery is apt." Whoa. Where did that come from I wonder?

I've kinda approached this topic before on this blog in the context of how associations between organisations here in Blighty and brands such as Thomas the Tank Engine might have similar connotations when it comes to the perception of autism (see here). I suppose one could equally suggest that whilst something like Thomas the Tank Engine is enjoyed by many children on the autism spectrum (as well as many children not on the autism spectrum!) there is always a risk that it might feed into a stereotype. In the case of trains, one can see the old 'systemising' link coming through and onward the shadow of the 'extreme male brain' thingy-majig that has, I think, been rather overplayed in the context of autism (see here). Indeed, with the classical association between trains and boys ('boys and their toys') one might be inclined to ask what such an association might mean for the the perception of the presentation of autism in females for example? And onward what imagery/association would be most appropriate in the context of female autism minus any sweeping generalisations?

Of course, one can find meaning in any imagery used in the context of any organisation linked to a specific diagnosis or condition. At least some opinions on this topic are likely also to reflect specific viewpoints about the organisation in question as per the MSSNG project funded by Autism Speaks (who coincidentally use a puzzle piece in their logo) and how that has been interpreted in some quarters. I do think we have to be quite careful in this area not to slide from one extreme to another in relation to how wide the autism spectrum is and indeed, ensuring representation of the entire autism spectrum when it comes to public perceptions (see here). I have one suggestion: with all the creative talent out there on the autism spectrum, perhaps organisations linked to autism should ask their members with autism to help design new logos...

To close, some artwork from a rather talented chap who might be able to help.


[1] Gernsbacher MA. et al. Do puzzle pieces and autism puzzle piece logos evoke negative associations? Autism. 2017 Aug 1:1362361317727125.


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