This is the second in a series of posts written by Abby Howard (Mu) designed to educate our members about Autism and Autism Acceptance.

As an Autistic person, I’d like to pose the question: after fifteen years of “lighting it up blue” what are we raising awareness of? How many of us share blue puzzle pieces on social media claiming to be supporters without knowing the complex history of what that symbolizes?

With greater visibility of Autism after mainstream media exposure, new associations were formed with core missions to find a cure for autism and support the parents of Autistic people. Autism Speaks and Cure Autism were the two most prominent charities until they merged in 2007. 

Although Autism Speaks is the biggest charity for Autism in America, it is considered by many to be a deeply flawed organization. Autism Speaks often presents Autism as a tragedy. In this ad campaign, they compared Autism to pediatrics AIDS, cancer, and diabetes. Autism Speaks was widely criticized for not having Autistic people in leadership, so they added John Elder Robinson, a highly regarded Autistic author, to their board. However, after numerous public relations mistakes, John Elder Robinson separated himself from the organization due to their unchanging rhetoric. Autism Speaks undoubtedly gets most of the philanthropic funding for Autism, however only 4% of their budget goes to family grants while the rest funds marketing and research that has often come into ethical question. Autism Speaks does not lead the positive legacy that many would like to believe.

Organizations like Autism Speaks have raised billions of dollars to find a cure for Autism, and every April you may notice Autism Awareness month, complete with blue puzzle pieces and the phrase “Lighting it up Blue.”

But where did this symbolism come from? 

Well, the color blue originated from the stereotype that only boys could be Autistic. The puzzle piece originated in Europe, but was adapted by Autism Speaks to represent the belief that something was missing from Autistic children and that they suffered from a puzzling condition. While being the most recognizable symbol for autism, the puzzle piece is offensive to Autistic adults who often believe that being Autistic is integral to who they are and do not desire to be cured. In 2020, Autism Speaks rebranded themselves by adding a small corner of pink gradient to the puzzle piece with a video campaign that centered on “Being Kind.” This resulted in a massive reaction from the Autistic community, as they had felt that their fifteen years of advocacy to end Autism Speaks’ reign had been reduced to being unkind, and that they were being “tone-policed,” which is a common tactic to silence marginalized groups throughout history. 

Things are changing though. Many caregivers and special education teachers have fought back on the outcry to remove the puzzle piece symbol from schools over the years. And an alternative movement has emerged. This movement is part of the umbrella Neurodiversity movement, which is based on the concept created by Judy Singer that with billions of brains in the world, not every brain will be the same. The two largest groups represented in this movement are ADHD and Autism, but it’s also inclusive of dyslexia, mental illness, and various learning disabilities. This movement is led by people who actually have these conditions, and they spend their lives educating professionals on how to better serve neurodivergent individuals. The symbol for Neurodiversity is a rainbow infinity loop, while the specified symbol for Autism is a gold infinity loop. And instead of using blue, the preferred colors associated with Autism is red, taupe, or gold to show respect for the history of girls in the Autism movement. Organizations led by Autistic people, like the Autistic Self Advocacy Network and the Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network, have emerged to begin a new chapter in representation for Autistic people. Today, more steps are being taken to ensure that there is “nothing about us without us”, a common rallying cry from the larger disability civil rights movement.

Now that we’ve learned more about the symbolism associated with the Autism acceptance movement, there are still steps we can take toward better supporting Autistic people, specifically in Greek Life. Come back next week for more on how Greek Life, and Omega Phi Alpha specifically, can commit to becoming a welcoming venue for Autistic people.

About Abby Howard

Abby Howard has been a member of Omega Phi Alpha since Fall 2014. While her home chapter is Mu Chapter at Middle Tennessee State University, she now serves as a faculty advisor to Phi Chapter at Arizona State University. Abby holds a Bachelor’s degree in Communication and a Master of Education degree in Higher Education Administration focusing on Universal Design in Higher Education. Abby is currently completing a Master’s degree in School Counseling with a specialization in Neurodiversity Affirmative Therapy and serves as a Specialist in Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services at Arizona State University. As a nationally award-winning public speaker, Abby uses her skills to coach competitive high school speech and debate.