17-Year-Old Creates Puzzle Piece Project in Honor of Sister with Autism

What started as a high school senior’s project has blossomed into a fundraising campaign for local schools.

Haley Cuthbert, age 17, has two younger sisters, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. Haley grew up watching how her sister was treated differently, how she struggled to communicate with other kids, and how she has overcome these challenges time and time again.

autism awareness puzzle piece project
Photo: Facebook/Haley Cuthbert

“We’ve all been affected by it; by seeing her struggle all these years and kids not being really kind to her,” Haley told her local news station. “I’ve also seen her struggle with kids in school because her social skills aren’t on the same level with kids that don’t have a disability.”

As Haley has watched her sister interact with the world around her, she has been repeatedly inspired to take a stand and help spread awareness about ASD. On her project’s website, Haley mentions that she was energized by her sister’s difficulties at school to participate in Olive Ames High School’s Best Buddies Program. “It is my responsibility to spread awareness and create friendships between those with intellectual disabilities and our other members,” she wrote.

autism awareness puzzle piece project
Photo: Facebook/Haley Cuthbert

Haley was also inspired to study early elementary education in college next year, all thanks to her sister. “I plan to continue my mission of spreading awareness… and learn new solutions that I hope to implement in my future classroom,” she wrote. But above all else, watching her sister’s situation has roused Haley to create the Puzzle Piece Project.

Originally, Haley intended to raise funds for fidgets and other small toys that can help children with autism fight their anxiety and balance overstimulation. However, as traction on her fundraiser grew, Haley knew she could provide more and began putting her funds towards not only fidgets, but weighted blankets that can help during meltdowns and moments of high anxiety, seat pads that allow students to shift their weight back and forth without disrupting the class, and much more.

autism awareness puzzle piece project
Photo: Facebook/Haley Cuthbert

So far, Haley has raised over $400 and has now earned the help of a local store, Piesco Sporting Goods. Owner Dave Piesco added a link on his website where customers can purchase t-shirts and sweatshirts with Puzzle Piece Project’s logo on it. All earnings above the cost of production will go straight to Haley’s project.

“Being in a pandemic, it’s really difficult and hard to reach out to people. It’s been hard to get them to understand this is really, really important, not just to me,” said Haley. “It’s important to all the kids in this community.”

Though fundraising will close soon as part of the school’s project, Haley has no intention of abandoning the Puzzle Piece Project. She will continue to raise funds separately and speak with the schools in her town about what supplies they need, as well as how they can educate neurotypical students on ways to include their peers on the autism spectrum.

To learn more about Haley and the Puzzle Piece Project, be sure to check out her website.

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