I want to make it clear from the outset that I am aware of the problems for some associated with the use of puzzle piece symbolism as a representation for the Autistic community. I share below a link for anyone interested in a place to start with further reading on the issue:
I recently had a conversation with my 9 year old son, who received his ASD diagnosis toward the end of 2018. He has been struggling recently with the constant change and unpredictability in the world. He also has his own personal anxieties around Covid-19- having spent a month hospitalised with a rare form of pneumonia as a toddler which left him with extensive lung damage, and he no doubt has some level of awareness around his susceptibility to respiratory infection (though I doubt he would articulate it like that!) He has a tendency to mask his ASD and once he has ‘learned’ the accepted protocol and way of doing things, he just follows along regardless of if it’s tricky for him to understand how and why things are done that way. Sadly it’s more often than not the way that those with physical or hidden disabilities are expect to adapt to the world as it is, rather than others seeking to adapt and understand the world to accommodate their needs.
In particular he seems to find it difficult to process and express his emotions, especially his anxieties around change. Often during a period of change, I will find he doesn’t directly address this as his concern- nor will he see that could be the source of his anxieties- instead he tends to suppress, suppress, suppress, and then all of a sudden seems to ‘blow up’ about something completely unrelated and seemingly insignificant to the untrained eye! This has become more and more apparent, as sudden changes have been fired at him left, right and centre over the course of the last few months. He’s also become much more aware of death, loss and suffering in a way he wasn’t necessarily confronted with before. Being aware of the pressure building within him, and witnessing him becoming more and more withdrawn, I called in professional assistance to try and help him access and release some of these difficult, big emotions.
It definitely worked to open those floodgates, and last Friday afternoon was spent consoling him as he worked through all the things which were coming up for him. One of the most difficult things to hear him verbalise was that he felt ‘like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit anywhere. A corner when all the corners are filled..” so he’s just “left at the side”. He also told me that he didn’t think he could “be in the world anymore”, and I swear I could feel my heart break into a thousand pieces there and then. Somehow I kept myself together and centred enough to help him through by continuing the analogy- in a surprisingly articulate way considering I just wanted to sneak of and have a little cry to myself!
I explained in the best way I could possibly put together that there were as many perceived ‘puzzles’ out there as there were people. I told him that he creates his own little puzzle with whatever jigsaw pieces he wants to create a life HE loves. I told him he doesn’t have to try and fit himself into anybody else’s puzzle, nor should anyone else try to need to change shape to fit his- we all have places we fit better naturally than others, and our focus and attention should be on building and securing these connections. I demonstrated with a look (and a really bad drawing) at what ‘puzzle pieces’ are important to me to make up my life, and I showed him he and my daughter are the ‘centrepieces of my puzzle, the most important bits, without you there’s a massive empty space” He said “Thank you” when I told him that, and I very nearly lost composure it was so wholesome and genuine. It definitely seemed to help him process better, and he perked right up at the thought he could just let go some of the puzzles and pieces that didn’t fit for him with grace, and redirect his energy elsewhere (he actually spoke of ‘incinerating’ them, but we had a talk about how extreme a response that was!)
I know he felt better as he was instantly lighter, only time will really tell if this was the right analogy to use and way to approach things long term. I’m not a professional, and I’m not HIM, so the next best things I can do are call on continued professional support and to really actively listen to him and watch his cues on an ongoing basis. I doubt it will be the last big challenge we face, but I’m hopeful we can face whatever is coming together and he can come through them all strong and empowered.