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Jigsaw Puzzles and a Bit of Linguistics

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

Thirty years ago, I could not even imagine that the symbol of the jigsaw puzzle (in the context of autism) could have negative connotations. However, lately, I’ve heard that some people not just dislike it, they are offended by it. (???)

Let's look at it "autistically", i.e., literally (without adding any connotations - neither positive nor negative) and metaphorically.

Jigsaw Puzzles – (in both literal and metaphorical meanings)

Jigsaw puzzles: (1) a picture stuck onto wood or cardboard and cut into pieces of different shapes that must be joined together correctly to form a picture again; a puzzle in which the player has to reassemble a picture that has been mounted on wooden or cardboard base and cut into a large number of irregularly shaped interlocking pieces;

(2) a complicated or mysterious problem that can only be solved or explained by connecting several pieces of information;

(3) any complex, confusing situation, condition, or item, as one composed of seemingly diverse or unrelated elements;

(4) a complicated and mysterious problem that can only be solved or explained by connecting several pieces of information.

Many autistic children love jigsaw puzzles. They can spend hours enjoying the activity:

“When I do puzzles, I pay more attention to the pieces than to the pictures. All the pieces might look similar, but in fact, if you examine them closely, you’ll see that each one is minutely different in outline.

I don’t begin the puzzle by working on the outside edges. Slotting two pieces together is the fun part for me and rushing to the completion of the puzzle defeats the whole point. I don’t take much pleasure from finishing it because that means the slotting together – the good part – is over. Once it done, I like to flip it over so it’s back to front. I love inspecting how the pieces all fit together from the plain, reverse side, too.” (Naoki Higashida)

“Ever since the psychologists saw me work on the puzzles, they never again said that I was mentally retarded, although they did not hesitate to mention that I had autism. I could tolerate what I have, which is autism. But I could not accept a diagnosis of something that I do not have, mental retardation. I remained thankful to my jigsaw-puzzle solving ability because I got a better diagnosis, which was honest and acceptable to my ego.” (Tito Mukhopadhyay)

When used metaphorically, it emphasises the complexity and fascinating nature of autism:

‘Autism’ is spoken of by some people as a jigsaw with a missing piece. I experienced my own ‘autism’ as one bucket with several different jigsaws in it, jumbled together and all missing a few pieces each but with a few extra pieces that didn’t belong to any of these jigsaws. The first dilemma for me was sorting out which pieces belonged to which jigsaws. From there, I had to work out which pieces were missing and which ones weren’t supposed to be in my bucket at all.” (Donna Williams)

It's hard (at least, for me) to see any negative connotation of the phrase. Autism isn’t simple, is it? We still cannot assemble many pieces we have in order to see the whole picture. Or, perhaps, we are trying to slot the pieces from several different jigsaws into the picture we have formed in our mind, and don’t want to accept that there are several possible pictures that can be formed from the many pieces we’ve already collected.

______________ Update 24.02.23: Thomas A. McKean, an autistic adult and one of the creators of the puzzle piece symbol, talks about the history of the puzzle piece as a symbol for autism. It’s positive and inspiring.

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