The Symbology of Autism

Just as many medical conditions, charitable causes, and organisations use certain colours and symbols to identify and differentiate themselves, Autism has multiple symbols and colours associated with it. They all have their own histories, their own origins, their own connotations. Here are several of the most well known…


The Puzzle Piece

The puzzle piece is the most well known symbol related to Autism, dating back to the early 1960s. It was created by a board member of the National Autistic Society, Gerald Gasson, in 1963 based on Autism being a ‘puzzling’ condition. The original logo included not only a puzzle piece but the illustration of a crying child, to represent how children were ‘suffering’ from Autism. Obviously this is deeply problematic and has  perpetuated the negative stereotypes about Autism for decades.

Over the years, there have been many, many different puzzle piece designs attached to Autism related organisations and charities. It’s also been associated with the idea that being autistic means you are missing something, that you are missing something that everyone else has; that may be a feeling that many autistic people experience at some point in their lives but it’s not something that should define us or that should be stated as fact. Another meaning associated with the puzzle piece is that Autism is a puzzle to be solved and, by extension, autistic individuals are puzzles to be solved, another stereotype that many autistic people dislike and dispute.

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Personally, I don’t hate it as a symbol. To me, the puzzle piece doesn’t represent something that’s missing; it represents the idea that we’re all puzzles and we wouldn’t be complete without every single thing that makes us who we are. We’re mosaics and we are who we are because of each piece that builds up the picture. I know many people feel that Autism isn’t just one piece and I agree but my point is that I don’t see the puzzle piece as something missing but as something fundamental. So I don’t hate it but I think its history – its original meaning – is too entrenched in society’s consciousness to ever really be changed. I doubt it could ever be a purely positive symbol at this point.

The Colour Blue

The use of the colour blue was first used to represent Autism by Autism Speaks (used in their ‘Light It Up Blue’ campaigns), instantly making it something to avoid given everything the organisation has done (x) (x). And the colour was chosen because Autism was believed to be far more common in boys, something we now know isn’t true; it’s just that the signs are often more easily observed in boys and men than in girls and women. Given the history with Autism Speaks and the misinformation implied by the colour, this is something to move away from.

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Rainbows

Most likely due to the use of the word ‘spectrum,’ rainbows have been associated with Autism and with neurodiversity. Many feel that the range of colours represents the different abilities, challenges, and identities of the autistic individuals the rainbow symbol represents.

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While I understand the association, the rainbow will always be firmly associated with being LGBTQIA as for as I’m concerned and attaching it to both identities will not only cause confusion but feelings of appropriation. While I know that isn’t the intention, using it for two different communities and ways we identify is only going to cause problems.

The Colour Gold

The choice of gold developed in deference to the use of the colour blue: “The idea is to have a common thread that runs through all groups, advocates and supporters that was easily recognised, different and came from the autistic community, not from those who think they speak for us.” (x) It’s based on the chemical symbol for gold, ‘Au,’ the first two letters of Autism and autistic and it has multiple positive connotations. Gold is something that is strived for, something rare and valued and treasured, giving autistic individuals a sense of being special, rather than less than – a feeling the puzzle piece often results in. It’s also not gender specific, just like Autism.

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Infinity Symbols

Like the gold symbol above, infinity symbols are fairly popular when representing Autism (often rainbow or gold coloured) because it represents everyone, every variation of Autism. The rainbow infinity symbol specifically was chosen to be the symbol for neurodiversity by Judy Singer (an autistic woman with an autistic child and sociologist) in the 1990s. This symbol therefore represents not just Autism but other neurodevelopmental conditions such as ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, and more. The infinity symbol not only represents the variation within the community but the inclusion of everyone in it no matter what their strengths, challenges, and so on are.

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I have nothing against the use of infinity symbols but for me, it’s too vague; it can represent too many things. I was using it in Maths long before I found out I was autistic so, in my head, it’s all about numbers and equations and that’s not how I see Autism at all. So, because of that, it just doesn’t really work for me; I don’t feel like it represents me as an autistic person or as a person in the autistic community.

Rainbow Circle

The rainbow circle is one of the most recent symbols representing Autism, created by Lori Shayew and Kelly Green: “In light of the recent news that the rainbow is not an arc, but a circle. (Thanks for the proof NASA) It’s time to recreate the new model. Colours of the rainbow weaving in motion. We are recognised for all of our colours… It’s time to break down the spectrum (low-mod-high) and allow our innate gifts to bloom and flourish. Don’t we all excel at some things, but not in others? No big deal. We can jump from yellow to red to indigo to green and back again. Maybe then there are no colours, only light.” (x) The logo for ASAN – the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, an organisation created by and for autistic people – is not dissimilar to this symbol.

Left (x) and right (x)

This is probably my favourite of the Autism symbols. While the traditional rainbow feels very entrenched and important in the LGBT community, this uses the fitting aspects but clearly distinguishes these two communities. I also really like that it can be personalised for each different person by changing the number and colour of the bands, chosen to represent your experience of being autistic as you see fit. So, with the general design being pretty recognisable, it can represent the community and the individual.

Sources: (1) (2) (3) (4) (5)


There have been more over the years but, as far as I know, these are the most significant ones, the ones that keep coming up. I’m not sure if we’ll ever find a colour or a symbol that we all agree on – I’m not sure if we need to – but I think transparency around the symbols and their histories… that is important. If there’s anything I’ve missed or more information I can add, please let me know. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on the different symbols so please leave a comment below if you feel so inclined!

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