Panel 1. Neurotypical teacher holds blue t-shirt with puzzle piece design and the saying "Be Kind." Teacher says, "We're wearing this shirt in April for Autism Awareness Month." Autistic, looking surprised, says, "Oh, what does being kind have to do with autism?" Panel 2. Teacher replies, "it's just a nice message to support." Autistic looks confused, says, "A nice" Panel 3. Close up of thought bubbles as autistic attempts to interpret the nice message. Considers, "Let's remember we should be kind to autistic people." "Autistic people, be kind too." "Autistic people need our kindness." "Do your advocacy for disabled human rights kindly." "Kindness, the solution to our autism epidemic." Panel 4. Autistic  shows concern, and asks, "Why are we wearing this in April?" Teacher replies, looking annoyed, "To show our support for autism." Then adds, "What's your problem?" End of comic.

Are you confident that the t-shirt or sweatshirt you’re wearing in April to support Autism Awareness Month is neurodiversity-affirming? If you corrected me by changing “awareness” to acceptance or appreciation, you’re off to a good start.

As the neurodiversity paradigm becomes more mainstream, advocates have been shifting away from referring to April as Autism Awareness Month, and moving toward Autism Acceptance (& Appreciation) Month. Woo, progress!

This post shares some red flags for identifying t-shirt messages or designs marketed for supporting autism that, in my opinion, aren’t actually neurodiversity-affirming. I dive deeper into the “why” so you can understand the rationale behind each point.

If you find one of these red flags in your wardrobe, I offer alternative messages or designs to look out for that I see as neurodiversity-affirming (from the perspective of an autistic SLP).

But first, a personal story that inspired this post.

Storytime – Quietly rejecting a “supportive” Autism Awareness Month shirt

In 2022, I received an order form to buy a t-shirt to wear throughout April for Autism Awareness and Acceptance Month and particularly on April 2nd, World Autism Awareness Day. The shirt spelled out “Be Kind to Everyone” and depicted puzzle pieces on the edges in the shape of a heart. Immediately, it prickled my skin. Made me feel uncomfortable.

At first, I didn’t know what it was that bothered me so much about the shirt, what made me hesitate to buy or support . I felt a little crazy, unreasonable. What would be wrong with the message “be kind to everyone”? Who would disagree or object to such a positive universal message? What was wrong with me?

Until it hit me.

I felt portrayed as a kindness project. It wasn’t empowering to me, as an autistic person, that I too was deserving of kindness like everyone else. It was empowering to non-autistic people to celebrate their kindness as what was valuable on World Autism Awareness Day. Not an autistic mind or perspective.

This doesn’t feel like an inspirational, positive message in support of autistic people because kindness is not respect. Kindness is not understanding. It’s not inherently accommodating. In essence, kindness is not at the top of my priorities when advocating for disability rights and equality. And I don’t think it should be yours either.

Consider the message this advocacy for kindness on World Autism Day sends – singling out a certain group of disabled individuals as needing our kindness. Synonymous with sympathy, goodwill. Like charity.

When I phrase it like that, do you feel comfortable advocating for that message?

I was one of the only people in the department who didn’t purchase the shirt and wear it in April, probably because a message like “be kind” seems completely innocuous. Yet when we look a little deeper and think about the context and symbolism, the underlying message isn’t so harmless.

I have nothing anything against the company that produced the shirt – they have a nice story, creating a business to improve the job opportunities their autistic daughter could have. That’s wonderful. They even have multiple designs that don’t include the autism puzzle piece association that I’d wear. Just not for advocating for autism acceptance.

This story brings me to number 1.

5 signs your autism month shirt is not neurodiversity-affirming:

1. It advocates for kindness.

Kindness is not respect. Kindness is not understanding. It’s not inherently accommodating. Advocating for kindness is not the same as advocating for disabled rights and opportunities. I see the association in theory. It would be nice if they were analogous, but this is simply not the case.

In actuality, kindness is incompatible with change. Disability-directed kindness can actively undermine advocacy.


Because kindness gives an individual a sense of satisfaction, achievement, self-assurance. When a person is satisfied, self-assured, they are not dissatisfied, curious, uncomfortable or angry, speaking up, striving for better, demanding change.

Advocating for kindness is like putting a band-aid over a deep cut, covering up what we don’t want to look at to make us feel good about our efforts while ignoring the growing infection underneath. And in this case, ableism is an infection and kindness is not the solution.

Real-world example

Anil Lewis calls this phenomenon of “kindness” impeding progress of disability rights compassionate discrimination.

“Compassionate discrimination, like other types of discrimination, springs from ignorance and deprives us all of the value each person and group of people have to offer. But unlike the abusive treatment of slaves resulting from racial discrimination and unlike the chauvinistic treatment of women resulting from gender discrimination, compassionate discrimination is cloaked in sympathy and good intentions.”

– Anil Lewis, 2013: Compassion Can Be Discrimination: Sign the Petition Against Subminimum Wages

In the article referenced, Lewis advocates for an equal minimum wage for individuals with disabilities in the workplace. Anil Lewis is an advocate for the blind and has championed for improvement of workers’ rights for people with disabilities.

When we view a disabled person holding a job as a privilege, we no longer see their employment as a right. Because this inclusion in the workplace is presented as an “opportunity” (compared to obligation), people with disabilities are not included in our minimum wage laws. Their value is seen as inherently lesser and not deserving of a wage commensurate with even the minimum for people without disabilities.

This is how compassion for “helping” people with disabilities can undermine the disabled person’s potential. When offering work to someone with a disability who requires accommodations is seen as a kindness, it is in direct opposition to being seen as a right.

Advocating for kindness does not truly demand change. Disabled people today do not need your acts of kindness, we need your respect.


I encourage you to consider the language your spirit wear uses carefully. Choose language that aligns with advocating for respect, equal rights and opportunities. Words like advocate, accept, appreciate, understand, include, support, respect, embrace, celebrate, empower.

If you’re not autistic yourself, I recommend taking it a step further and also avoid exclusionary language. For example, the phrase “it’s okay to be different” suggests that someone needs your approval and you’re merely allowing difference, not supporting it. Words like unique, rare, mysterious can be interpreted as alienating to some, analogous to puzzling.

Some people may find messages using positive characteristics empowering, like using intelligent, talented, capable, useful, clever, strong, brave, inspirational. Personally, these words used to show support for autistic people also makes me uncomfortable.

My mind interprets the message as your approval or acceptance of autistic people is contingent on us demonstrating these traits. Like I need to be intelligent to be valued. I need to be strong or brave to earn your respect. I need to be capable or useful to be accepted.

Regardless of the intention of the non-autistic person, I interpret that society is more accepting of “intelligent, strong, useful” autistic people. The sentiment comes across differently compared to an autistic person using these same words to describe only themselves.

2. It advocates for awareness.

I see many t-shirts that still print “autism awareness,” even amongst an otherwise positive message.

But think about popular “awareness” campaigns. What do they generally have in common? Breast cancer awareness, HIV/AIDS awareness, human trafficking awareness, gun violence awareness, ALS bucket challenge for ALS awareness.

“Awareness” is a term commonly used to draw attention to a disease, an affliction, a danger to society. Be vigilant, be aware of the dangers of such conditions.

We don’t say Black History Awareness Month. Or LGBTQ+ Awareness Month. Or National Voter Awareness Month. We don’t say Better Speech and Hearing Awareness Month.

April 2nd is considered World Autism Awareness Day. Here are some of the other “awareness” campaigns associated with April.

  • Alcohol awareness month
  • National Parkinson’s awareness
  • Distracted driver awareness
  • Stress awareness
  • Sexual assault awareness

…all of these awareness campaigns are associated with highlighting the dangers of a health crisis.

Autism has a history of fear-mongering and alarm campaigns. Former President Trump has called autism an epidemic. Autism Speaks has a history of campaigning to raise money for researching a cure, like Relay for Life campaigns to raise money to cure cancer.

Awareness is associated with prevention and curative mindsets.

My brain has some pretty amazing capabilities. Hyperfocus, analyzing small details and making connections between them, a strong visual memory, and my overactive sensory system makes me feel so intensely. At the same time, my brain comes with some major disabilities. I struggle with gross motor skills and hand-eye coordination, grasping humor, recognizing even familiar faces. I struggle to communication effectively with someone with a different brain.

An awareness campaign ignores differences that are neutral or even positive, only highlighting problems, danger, tragedy. Autism does not only disable me, like my digestive disease. My autism describes how I perceive and make sense of the world; it describes along a continuum my sensory system, my attention, focus, memory, way of thinking, values, judgment.

I have a distinct profile of strengths and weaknesses compared to a neurotypical person, and not all of them are disorders harming my life. The disorders have their own names. Gluten intolerance, gastroparesis, dyspraxia, alexithymia (emotion blindness), prosopagnosia (face blindness), fibromyalgia. Someone may have intellectual disability, apraxia of speech, motor planning deficits, but they are not synonymous with autism.


Using “acceptance” highlights differences over disorder and shifting our mindset to accepting brain diversity. I am far more comfortable advocating for acceptance of brain differences rather than awareness of autism as a global health crisis.

Our “awareness” efforts need to be concentrated on the rampant ableism and discrimination that people with disabilities including autism still face.

For example, children with autism and developmental disabilities can be denied organ transplant due to their disability. (As of March 2024, the bill to end this discrimination has yet to be law.) During the pandemic, many Covid patients with learning disabilities were put on do not resuscitate orders without their consent.  We need awareness that disabled brains are being considered less deserving of life, rights, and opportunities.

We don’t need autism awareness anymore in the US; we need acceptance and appreciation that an autistic brain is not inferior to a non-autistic one.

You can also choose not to support World Autism Day on April 2 or Autism Awareness Month at all, based on their history. An alternative would be supporting Autistic Pride Day on June 18. This shift in language from “Awareness” to “Pride” is an important step in shifting our mindset from autism as an ailment to cure to an identity of having an autistic kind of brain.

3. Uses Person-first language

For a long time, professionals who worked with autistic individuals have promoted using person-first language, “person with autism,” to emphasize the personhood rather than the autism. That’s what I was taught in undergraduate and graduate school, and I’m sure most of you experienced the same.

But separating my “personhood” from my autism feels inaccurate to my experience. If a genie took away my autism, I couldn’t conceive of who I would be as a person. I would certainly not feel like me.

Autism influences my memory skills, focus and attention, mannerisms, language, sensory input and motor output systems, thought processes, how I connect with others and socialize, how I experience and express emotions, and more. Autism is more of an innate expression of my identity and personality, not just an affliction to my personhood.

You can separate me from my fibromyalgia and digestive disorder. Pain and bodily dysfunction is not inherent to my personhood. If a genie took away my chronic pain, I would be the same person, just physically and mentally healthier.


The majority of the autistic community currently prefers using autistic to describe themselves. According to Autistic Not Weird’s latest survey (7,491 autistic individuals), ~92.5% preferred to use autistic over other options, including person with autism, ASD, and Asperger’s.

The autistic community, (such as the official statement released by the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network), continues to argue for identity-first language. Autism is an intrinsic characteristic to our identity. It cannot be separated from our personhood.

Still, if an autistic person you encounter prefers to use person with autism or on the spectrum, listen to their preference. The autistic community is not a monolith. Every individual has their own view. But when in doubt, I encourage you to default to using autistic.

4. Puzzle piece symbols

Our eyes are naturally drawn to symbols. We process images faster than words. “A picture is worth a thousand words” and all that jazz. Symbols represent – every major organization has some kind of logo or symbol associated with it.

The puzzle piece symbol has significant historical associations. I recommend checking out related articles that outline the history clearly, like “The Ableist History of of the Puzzle Piece Symbol for Autism” (In the Loop About Neurodiversity, 2019), as well as Judy Endow’s “Goodnight Autism Puzzle Pieces” (2015).

Autism Speaks has historically used the single blue puzzle piece symbol along with their “Light it Up Blue” campaign, (the color blue misrepresenting that autistic individuals are primarily male). The Autism Society has used puzzle pieces in red, yellow, and blue arranged in a ribbon for disease awareness.

I’ve begun to see less of the blue single puzzle piece in recent years, yet the red, yellow, and blue puzzles pieces I continue to see on t-shirts and associated with concepts of neurodiversity or acceptance of autistic people.

I enjoy jigsaw puzzles. But I do not want to be represented as a puzzle or a puzzle piece.

Because I don’t need to be solved. I don’t need someone to put me together. I’m not “missing” a piece or incomplete as I am. I’m not an unpredictable mystery – I’m not puzzling. (In fact, being autistic, I find myself very predictable.)

More details of historical association

In my honest opinion, thinking of people as puzzles feels dehumanizing. To illustrate my point, let me share a quote from
O. Ivar Lovaas, often considered the “Father” of ABA therapy.

“You see, you start pretty much from scratch when you work with an autistic child. You have a person in the physical sense — they have hair, a nose and a mouth — but they are not people in the psychological sense. One way to look at the job of helping autistic kids is to see it as a matter of constructing a person. You have the raw materials, but you have to build the person.”

Ivar Lovaas

The thinking from this quote, that autistic people are not really people and need to be built into actual people is deeply disturbing.

Historically, an entire field of professionals who worked with autistic children were taught to think of them as pieces they had to put together rather than complete human beings as themselves.

My areas of deficit do not make me incomplete just like a neurotypical person’s areas of deficit (since everyone has some weakness) do not make them incomplete. My behaviors influenced by autism are not a puzzle, they’re just different, and once explained are not difficult to understand or predict. I don’t need to be shaped or molded by neurotypical social conventions to be considered a worthy person.


Support Red Instead or Light it Up Gold, over Light it Up Blue. Support ASAN (Autistic Self-Advocacy Network), AWN (Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network), Autism Level Up, Communication First.

Some argue that puzzle pieces can be viewed positively, such as every person fitting into the overall puzzle of the world, or each of us having a unique piece to contribute.

There is some power in people “taking back” previous language or symbols that used to be considered a harmful representation or depiction of a group. I acknowledge that is a very fair and noble endeavor if that person is autistic themself.

However, currently the overall narrative is that people view puzzle pieces in a negative connotation.

A research study by Gernsbacher et. al (2017) found that puzzle pieces were perceived negatively by participants (total of 400) both in general and when used in autism-related logos. Puzzle pieces, whether specifically related to autism or without any association, were found to evoke perceptions of “incompleteness, imperfection, and oddity” (abstract). The authors recommended that puzzle pieces not be used for materials or organizations that are intended to be viewed with positive connotations.

I encourage you to rethink using the puzzle piece symbol and choosing designs that do not include them. If you’re looking for a symbol supported by the autistic community, the gold infinity symbol is used to represent autism, and the rainbow infinity symbol has been used to represent both autism and other neurodivergencies.

5. Infantilizing designs

Autism is still most commonly associated with autistic children. Autistic people are often perceived as younger, more childlike, or “innocent” than non-autistic people.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been mistaken for a student in my high schools and even middle school. I appear young, naive, and my voice is high-pitched like a child. As a result, I tend to be taken less seriously face to face.

If our goals center on respecting, valuing, offering equal opportunity for autistic people, then we need to view them as equal human beings, not childish or innocent ones we need to protect.

Portraying autism and autistic people as more childish or in infantilizing ways perpetuates the stigma that autistic people already have to face daily. Sure, there are plenty of autistic children and it seems perfectly appropriate to wear a shirt with a childish or cartoonish design if you are a kindergarten teacher, a relative of a young autistic child, or an autistic child who likes the design themself. However, please think twice or reconsider supporting childish designs if you primarily work with older students, are shopping for an autistic teen or adult.

Autistic children are not the only ones who matter for our advocacy. Autistic kids grow into autistic teens and adults. Infantilizing designs or messages can degrade the intended message of advocacy efforts by perpetuating ableist stereotypes.

Real-world example

For example, the first season of “Love on the Spectrum” infantilized the autistic couples through the music chosen, the narrator’s tone of voice, edited exaggerations of awkwardness on dates, the sessions with a dating coach who encouraged masking, and by the likes and dislikes of each person shared, many of which were directly related to sensory issues.

It made me feel more like I was looking at zoo animals interact with one another rather than human beings.

This TikTok explains the infantilization remarkably better than I can, as this man is an autistic video editor, and I highly encourage you to watch it, and then come back and reconsider your thoughts on the presentation of the show if you’ve watched it.

Moving forward

Advocacy shouldn’t make you feel good; it should make you feel uncomfortable. Because change is hard, standing out is scary, but it’s also necessary for progress.

I should have spoken up rather than stayed silent regarding my discomfort for that t-shirt last year. I should have told somebody why I didn’t want to join in and show that support, but I didn’t. Because I wasn’t confident in myself; I didn’t think that my one voice and opinion really mattered for advocacy; I didn’t think that anyone around me would want to listen. But the more we stay silent, the more we dismiss opportunities for true system-wide change.

Please think further if you’re asked to support a message or organization that is not neurodiversity-affirming.

Promote messages like accepting all kinds of brains, listening to autistic people, accepting and appreciating autism, celebrating neurodiversity, normalizing accommodations.

Promote messages that neurodiversity includes everyone, that neurodivergents matter, that autism or disability are not bad words, that neurodivergents or autistics are different not less, that verbal speech is not necessary for communication. Promote rainbow infinity signs for neurodiversity, or gold infinity signs for autism, not puzzle pieces.

Promote being kind to everyone without tying it to people with autism or other disabilities.

Comment below sharing your favorite autism or disability advocacy shirt. Or if you found value in this post, I always like to know.

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