Autism pins have obscure beginning

Charlie Morgan holds an autism ribbon which he and his siblings began making 10 years ago. His mother Shari Morgan wears a lapel cloisonne Autism Awareness Pin designed from the family’s trademark pattern. All proceeds benefit the Autism Society of America.

A pin with a bright-colored puzzle design is the logo of the Autism Society of America. The recognizable pattern has been distributed across the country and around the world in fundraising efforts for the past decade, increasing awareness about the autism spectrum disorder now affecting 1 in 94 males, and 1 in 110 people overall. People with autism have varying degrees of difficulty communicating and interacting socially with others.

That little pin, which has morphed into other products to help educate citizens about the condition, had humble beginnings at a kitchen table with a mother and three young children.

Shari Morgan, who moved to Greencastle five years ago, was introduced to the world of autism when her third child received the diagnosis as a toddler. While navigating all that meant in terms of communication with Charlie, and getting him the services he needed to meet his potential, she wanted his siblings to be a part of advocating for those who couldn't seek help on their own.

The family lived in Potomac, Md. The logo of the Autism Society in nearby Bethesda was a picture of a boy, with puzzle pieces covering parts of him.

"We hated it," said Morgan.

So in 2000 she took Rosie, then 12, Tom, 11, and Charlie, 9, to a fabric store. They hoped to find something with which to create an alternative logo. The puzzle style was appropriate, as autism was complex and difficult to understand. They found ribbon that matched their desires exactly.

Back home, the trio began cutting the ribbon into small pieces and hotgluing the overlapping side. They handed out the items to teachers, librarians,  friends and staff at ASA. The organization called and asked for more.

"The kids made another hundred," said Morgan. "Then ASA was getting calls from families who wanted to give them out as wedding favors. So we made 500 a week for several weeks."

Because Morgan was donating the ribbons, but purchasing many spools at retail prices, she finally called the manufacturer, Offray, to ask for a better price. The company invited her to its operation in Hagerstown, Md., a town she had never heard of.  They struck a good deal.

The autism ribbons eventually got pin backs, which the family glued on, too. Morgan expanded even more and contracted for metal pins which groups could sell in their fundraisers. She placed an order for 100,000. She also applied for a copyright for the Autism Awareness Pin and it was awarded three years later.

Morgan has never made any money from the sale of the pins, considering the design her gift to the community. All proceeds have gone to ASA. She is confident $1 million has been raised through the cloisonne pins. Other people and organizations continue to offer them, as does the headquarters in Bethesda. More items have been created featuring the puzzle design and colors, including car magnets.

Charlie, a student at Greencastle-Antrim High School, remembers helping out so many years ago. "It's about awareness."

Today ASA proclaims the pin is symbolic in many ways. The colors and shapes represent the diversity of people and families living with the condition. The bright colors signal hope for increased awareness, early intervention and appropriate treatments.

In the culture

The pin logo has made its mark in society. April is National Autism Month and the puzzle appears frequently in its publicity. Nascar adopted the cause of raising awareness with Autism Speaks 400, and puts the logo on cars and tracks. Fox Sports joined the campaign. When the cloisonne pin was first released, $40,000 came in for the ASA in one month. Prince Charles of England has one.

When Rosie applied to colleges, she wrote an essay on the project. To her surprise, she received a $6,000 annual scholarship for her commitment. Each year she brings 500 pins to school to hand out. Another student said she already had one from her high school in Virginia. Rosie was delighted to see how everything came together over time. "It's in our culture now."

Thomas told his mom the experience paralleled a quote by Martin Luther King, 'A time comes when silence is betrayal.'

"That's what we did with our pins," he said. "We were always trying to help support Charlie. Now we've given him a voice."

The cause of autism is unknown. Morgan said it was heavily genetic but also more prevalent because of better diagnosis. Her mother, Barbara Hall, who lives with the family, believes the environment has something to do with the increase of cases.

Both live with the affects of autism daily and continue to advocate for everyone touched by the condition.

"It's a neurological-developmental disorder," said Morgan. "It's pervasive. You don't have it just a little bit. It will color everything you do."