Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re doing okay, even though I’m sure many of us are feeling the ominous presence of Autism Acceptance Week looming at the end of the month. But for now, let’s talk about logos and autism…
- Logo (noun): A visual symbol used by an organisation to identify their brand.
- Logos (noun, philosophy): Reasoning, discourse, in order to achieve understanding.
- Knowledge (noun): Information or ability acquired through understanding a subject.
For thousands of years, human beings have asserted their supposed ownership of livestock and of other human beings by branding them. Branding usually involves using a hot iron (or sometimes an extremely cold iron) to burn the skin or hide of the person or animal. The burn creates a scar in the shape of a symbol or logo associated with the purported owner. Branding in this way is an act of physical, mental and social cruelty, carried out so that a person or organisation can tell the world at a glance that they own the branded subject. The grotesque practice was historically used in slavery as well as on livestock, and it is believed the practice of branding slaves still goes on in some dark corners of the world. Branding by burn is a statement of power. The farmer, rancher, or slave owner has power over the living creatures they have branded. If you’re a cattle rustler, and you see livestock branded with the logo of a particularly powerful and ruthless rancher, you’re going to think twice before swinging your lasso, right? So, the power of a brand isn’t only over the person or creature branded; the power is also communicated outwards to anyone seeing the brand. Power and fame go hand in hand in this respect. Big Bert*, the ruthless, violent rancher has a BB brand, and everyone in the region knows you don’t steal livestock branded BB if you value your life. (*Big Bert does not really exist, and I watched too many bad westerns as a kid.). The brand communicates the knowledge, and there lies the power.
Branding has evolved, particularly in the era of mass media. Now, all kinds of organisations, manufacturers, and service providers have brand logos which are not burned into the skin of living things, but instead are burned into the consciousness of the public. If, like me, you’ve ever had to endure that tedious party game in which you see a slideshow of company logos and you have to guess which companies they each represent, you will have seen the power of this branding when you realise how many of the logos you instantly recognise. Nike swoosh, anyone? Pepsi? But are these brands really necessary in the modern age? Well, the answer to that lies in the fact that big organisations who advertise and promote themselves with these logos clearly see them as essential. Take pizza outlet Dominos. They are a multibillion-dollar concern, recognised the world over, and when you see that famous domino logo, you don’t need to see the actual word Dominos, or even the word pizza, to know what it means. Branding has power; the power to get the brand message “out there”, and power over the individual that sees it – you see domino; you think pizza. Brand logos have a halo effect, too. You see the famous Rolls Royce RR, and you will think cars, but you will also think luxury. Whereas if you see Volkswagon’s VW, you also think cars, but probably reliability as a halo.
Another part of branding is that the halo effect of a given brand is responsible for exerting incredible power over certain consumers. Owners of these brands call this effect brand loyalty. One of the world’s most recognisable logos is the Apple, erm, apple. If you’re the kind of person who has an iPhone, an iPad, a MacBook and an Apple Watch, you know the Apple brand is better than the rest, right? In fact, this loyalty many consumers have to the Apple brand means that the term walled garden, which used to refer to software developers being forced to play by Apple’s rules, is now being used to describe the way many customers are locked into the Apple brand for all their device requirements. Apple aficionados tend to be proud of using the brand. Have you ever noticed that many iPhone cases have a hole in them to reveal the Apple logo? This is the power of branding; loyalty and dedication from its disciples who know the brand they follow is the best, and show off that logo wherever they can. A good brand provider knows how to exploit brand loyalty. Providers can measure consumer response to branding and logos, and use the knowledge gained to further exert their power over consumers. But sometimes, logo design goes horribly wrong, for all kinds of reasons…
World-famous UK broadcaster, the BBC, was heavily criticised for allegedly “wasting” TV licence fees on perhaps one of the most ordinary and uninspiring logos ever seen…
Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic church, infamous for its systematic and institutionalised sexual abuse of children, and for covering up said abuse, gave the world this unfortunate logo for its Archdiocesan Youth Commission…
There is a serious point here: While logos are impressive tools for implementing the knowledge is power principle, these logos can and do take on a life of their own, sometimes far from what was intended by the provider. There is a whole online subculture around logos that send unintentionally sexual messages. An infamous example comes (cough cough) from an early 1990s Christmas card design by Swedish company Locum…
The lesson for any provider of a logo is that, as much as the logo represents your brand and the power it confers, sometimes the power escapes into the social wild, and evolves a new meaning. Still powerful, but in unexpected ways. (A bit like the Marvel Comics villain, Zzzax, who was just electrical energy in a power plant before getting into the wild and developing its own personality – apologies for the random Hulk diversion). This is a concept that anyone who has studied literature will be familiar with. The Reader-Response Theory of literary analysis has a valid position. As an old tutor of mine put it in the simplest possible way: How can you possibly know what the author intended? Are you a mind reader? Even if the author told you what they intended by a text, how do you know they are telling the truth? And how sure are you that the text actually does what they claim to intend? In Reader-Response Theory, the responsibility for the meaning of a text lies with the experience of the reader. The meaning is the effect that the text has on the reader; how the reader responds to it. Of course, this doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equally valid…
A lazy, groundless interpretation is always going to be a lazy, groundless interpretation. But if a text is approached with care and a willingness to join the dots of meaning, and eliminate extraneous “noise” from the signal, it is possible to develop a compelling interpretation of a text purely from response. Art critics often do the same thing, looking for the effect a given painting creates, for example. This is why we often talk about things other than simple words as texts. In analysis and criticism, we refer to paintings, films, performances, etc, as texts in this broader definition. And so, yes, we can look at logos as texts, too; texts that can be analysed for their meaning in terms of the effects they create. We all do this to some extent with every logo we see; this informal and often unconscious interpretation is what creates the halo meaning of logos I mentioned earlier. And it is how and why people sometimes see seemingly unintended sexual content in logos, such as the Locum and Roman Catholic efforts, and, I assure you, many, many more. While we cannot be totally sure (after all, are you a mind reader?) what the designers of logos intended, it’s reasonable to assume the Roman Catholic church as an organisation didn’t really want a logo that can be interpreted as a depiction of an act of paedophilia, considering their horrific track record. But such an interpretation is easily and compellingly drawn because it fits the church well – their record of institutionalised paedophilia is a matter of public record, after all. It really doesn’t matter what the designer intended, does it? Any text released into the wild risks going full-on Zzzax and taking on a life of its own, and any meaning that develops as a result will persist, with all its halo effects. This is why, when I think of Marks and Spencer foods, I think high quality, whereas when I think of Aldi, I think cheap and cheerful, regardless of the objective quality of two comparable products from them. All of which, after a bit of a trip down a rabbit hole, brings me to autism, and that damned jigsaw piece.
It was my sad experience recently to have to deal with someone who was acting in a bullying and provocative way on Twitter when discussing the infamous jigsaw puzzle piece icon/logo. I’m not going to give the bully too much oxygen on this blog post, and in the greater scheme of things, this was a tiny, tiny ripple on the vast online ocean of autistic discourse. The bully in question has, at the time of writing, a colossal total of 26 followers, to illustrate. But nevertheless, this bully tweeted a link to something that is at best misleading, and at worst quite damaging, and is potentially being read and believed by many, many more people than his handful of followers. It forms part of the tsunami of autism misinformation out there which is something I’m trying to play a part in holding back. Before I go any further, let me talk a bit about current attitudes toward the puzzle piece. The vast majority of autistic people who are aware of the puzzle piece logo (pretty much all of us) have a strong dislike of it. And that’s putting it mildly. Many of us detest the bloody thing. Now, considering that the puzzle piece logo is almost ubiquitous when it comes to the subject of autism, you’d think the fact that nearly all autistic people can’t stand it might carry some weight. But no. This logo is everywhere. Google autism, click images, and see what is at the top of the page…
And when autism awareness/acceptance week/month comes around, you know social media will be deluged with puzzle piece icons, memes and gifs. And don’t get me started on the autism merchandise you can buy. Just look at Amazon…
Okay, if you’re not already familiar with this subject, you might be thinking, why do autistic people hate this logo so much? Well, this logo has escaped into the wild, as it were. Bearing in mind reader-response theory, and the fact that we cannot know what the original designer of the logo really intended, we have a situation in which autistic people have looked at this logo, thought about it, and been absolutely horrified by their conclusions. As a social minority, we are sick and tired of being discriminated against. We have had enough of the prejudice. We have had our fill of being incorrectly described as deficient or lacking in aspects of humanity such as love and empathy. We are sick of being described by the establishment of autism professionals as a problem. And so when we see a puzzle piece, in any of its many incarnations, being used to indicate autism, we think: No, we are not puzzles waiting to be solved. We are not people with missing pieces.
The puzzle piece succinctly draws together decade upon decade of social stigmatisation of autistic people in one neat, nasty little logo. Yes, we hate it. And what’s more, we don’t really care what the intent behind the logo was. But even then, the intent thing is something that certain people are trying to use to manipulate responses to the puzzle piece logo. If the autism establishment – made up of people whose careers and livelihoods depend on social fear of autism – can take back control and perception of the puzzle piece logo, they can use the power of branding to further manipulate public perception of autism. A big, if not the biggest, fish in this shark-infested sea, is the so-called autism charity, Autism Speaks, who have adopted the puzzle piece as their official branding, and have probably done more than all other organisations and individuals combined to drive the global ubiquity of the logo. Autism Speaks has a truly horrific history when it comes to autism. Not only did they support disgraced doctor and fraudster Andrew Wakefield’s false claim that vaccines cause autism, but they still push ABA – an alleged therapy which has left countless autistic people traumatised. And that’s just the tip of the lethal iceberg where Autism Speaks is concerned. They are the apex predators in the gloomy waters of the autism establishment, causing untold misery for autistic people. This is not a conspiracy. There is no dark cabal meeting in secret headquarters planning this campaign against autistic people – it is just the sad human behaviour of many individuals driven by greed combining to create the effect. This brings me to one way in which the narrative around the jigsaw puzzle piece is being subverted, which came to my attention after being tweeted by a sad little Twitter bully…
In the above screenshot of the bully’s tweet, I have removed his identity because, honestly, he doesn’t really warrant any further attention. His tweet was in response to an autistic person who disagreed with him that autistic people have been brainwashed into becoming some kind of anti-jigsaw hate group. It was weird stuff. Anyway, in this tweet, he claims to be sharing a link to an article written by one of the people who allegedly created the puzzle piece. This set off my bullshit detector, and I wasn’t disappointed. (I’m going to ignore the fact that this article is hosted on the website for “National Council On Severe Autism” – don’t get me started on this; it deserves a blog post all to itself.) The claim made is a lie. It’s a lie because, despite the bully’s claim, the writer of the article was not a creator of the puzzle piece. In fact, the article itself contradicts the dishonest claim in the title. Look at the title of the article first:
The title clearly claims it’s going to tell us the real meaning of the puzzle piece logo, as explained by one of the “originators”. But look at what the text of the article actually says…
The content of the article makes an insidious sidestep from talking about the puzzle piece logo, to talking about a ribbon, which happens to contain a puzzle piece image. The author then goes on to talk about what the ribbon means, but what he is actually talking about is what they intended it to mean. Can you spot the problem? Much like Locum and their Christmas card, or the Roman Catholic church’s youth project, they had one thing in mind for their logo, but when in the wild, it Zzzaxed out, and came to mean something entirely different. The article author’s claim that the ribbon wasn’t intended to say autistic people are puzzles with missing pieces is a retrospective claim triggered by the fact that autistic people see it exactly like that. We’ve made an interpretation which is entirely in line with the appearance of the puzzle piece logo. But furthermore, it’s a really disingenuous claim in the title that this author was one of the originators of the puzzle piece in the 1999 workshopping of a ribbon, because the puzzle piece logo for autism actually has its beginnings in the early 1960s in the UK. To be specific, the puzzle piece logo for autism was created in 1963, by one Gerald Gasson, a board member of the National Autistic Society. The original logo combined the puzzle piece with a child in tears. The implication of the logo was obvious, and clearly illustrated the prevailing view of the time that autism was a childhood illness that was a puzzle to be solved; all the things that the autistic community is now rejecting. Okay, but are we overthinking it?
Nihil de nobis, sine nobis: Nothing about us without us. I can’t help thinking this latin phrase would look great worked into a logo. We autistic people are a social minority who throughout the last 80+ years have been abused and discriminated against for the crime of being a little different from most other folks. The current plight of autistic people; the disastrous state of our mental health, the tragedy of our mortality compared to non-autistic people, the prevalence of suicide, unemployment, and financial insecurity among us, the prejudice and discrimination we face daily, constitute a scandal of the highest, darkest order. So when we say we don’t want the jigsaw puzzle piece to represent autism, we are speaking from a position of anger and independence. It’s up to us how we want to be represented; nothing about us without us. Of course, there is a small minority of autistic people who don’t know about or care about the jigsaw logo. Of course, there is even a small minority of autistic people who have been conditioned into thinking that autism really is a disorder; that there is something wrong with them. These people must follow their own consciences. But the vast, overwhelming majority of autistic people have seen the puzzle piece, considered it, understood the power of branding, and have utterly rejected this logo. We are not overthinking it; we understand that branding is so powerful that global organisations spend billions maintaining their logos and branding, because they too understand the power. We are not overreacting, we are simply exerting our freedom to choose for ourselves how we want to be branded (if at all), and it isn’t the puzzle piece. And we are not misinterpreting anything; we’ve drawn a logical conclusion from weighing the potential meanings of a puzzle piece image when it’s put in the context of autism, and, regardless of what its creator might have intended, we don’t want it. We will not allow ourselves to be socially branded by this logo. We will not allow the purveyors of this logo to claim ownership of our autism. We will resist the attempts of the autism establishment to exert their power over us, claiming greater knowledge of our autism than us, via their nasty little logo.
I will never put this blog behind a paywall. I want anyone, anywhere, to be able to access this content at any time. There are costs incurred running this website, however. So if you like what I’m trying to do here, please feel free to show your support with a small contribution via buymeacoffee.com.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.
You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.
3 thoughts on “Part 129: Logos And The Jigsaw Of Hate”
Have you read the study about negative connotations related to the puzzle piece logo? There’s research backing up what you’re saying! https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6085079/
You make a great point about the difference between intent and interpretation, too. Even if something was created by someone who meant well, the way people interpret it is important.
Thanks Jenna. I wasn’t aware of the research, but I’m going to have a look at it.
It was neat to see research valuing autistic opinions and adding something useful to the conversation!