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Blue pumpkins have informally been adopted by families to raise awareness for Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) after the idea went viral on social media.
While blue pumpkins aren't associated with a formal fundraiser or organization, families display them as a symbol to help educate others about how Halloween festivities may impact a child on the autism spectrum.
Experts say you should be mindful of three main obstacles during the holiday, and share tips on what you should do if you see a child carrying a blue pumpkin (or if you wish to display one yourself).
Colored pumpkins have a special way of catching your eye throughout the fall season and especially during Halloween festivities — which is why some families have historically used pumpkins as a way to get their neighbors' attention. This is particularly true for blue-colored pumpkins and gourds used in traditional decorative displays in October; and in the case of Halloween, any dark-blue pumpkin candy buckets and yard signs getting fellow trick-or-treaters to take a second look.
And like many other non-traditional pumpkins at Halloween, the act of setting out a blue pumpkin started as a grassroots movement on social media — but it has remained a family-first awareness campaign for the 1-in-54 American children who are on the autism spectrum, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Most likely inspired by the Teal Pumpkin Project — which launched in 2013 as a way for families facing severe food allergies to better educate neighbors about these challenges — social media users began noticing blue pumpkins begin to trend as symbols to raise awareness about how Autism Spectrum Disorders may impact trick-or-treating and other Halloween festivities. It's unclear who first began using blue pumpkins as a conversation starter for autism education, but one of the first viral posts about the social-fueled grassroots campaign came from one Louisiana-based family in 2018.
Since then, many families have taken to displaying blue pumpkins on their porches, lawns and in backyards to aim to kick off a conversation with neighbors — and some have created blue-pumpkin candy bags for children to prompt neighbors to think twice about how they may have to adjust their interactions once they open the door to trick or treaters. One pediatric therapy group based in Wyoming took to Facebook to sum up the most popular way blue pumpkins have been used by families in the know: "If you see someone carrying a blue pumpkin while trick or treating, please consider that they may have autism," they shared on Facebook. "This means that speech may be difficult as well as their ability to interact with you. Be extra kind!"
What is the meaning of a blue pumpkin?
There are two ways blue pumpkins may be used in the fall season and during Halloween; while neither is tied to a singular public campaign or a nonprofit fundraising goal, many families organize blue pumpkin displays and outreach efforts for unique awareness (and for personal goals, too!).
Primarily, blue pumpkins are used by families and caregivers to signal to others that their child is on the autism spectrum (and that trick-or-treating exchanges may present unique perplexities for them) to prompt neighbors to be more aware of the situation in the moment. One viral 2019 post lays out why parents are hoping blue pumpkins will catch on across cities and neighborhoods everywhere.
"My son is 3 years old and has autism. He is nonverbal," Omairis Taylor wrote on Facebook back in 2019. "Last year, houses will wait for him to say 'Trick or Treat' in order for him to get a piece of candy — and there I go explaining the situation for the next 5 blocks. This year, we will be trying the Blue Bucket to signify he has autism. Please allow him (or anyone with a Blue Bucket) to enjoy this day… this holiday is hard enough without any added stress," she added.
Other parents and caregivers have expressed concern over requiring a child to carry a visual indicator, and will instead opt for blue pumpkin displays to prompt a conversation about the best ways to greet and interact with a child on the autism spectrum.
It's a moment when families have an opportunity to explain that traditional Halloween displays may trigger sensory issues, or as Taylor explained, that verbal communication may be limited or nonexistent during evening festivities (and that's okay!). Some may display blue pumpkins as a sign that they've prepared in advance to address common obstacles that children on the autism spectrum face on this holiday as well.
What you should know about displaying a blue pumpkin:
Officials at the Autism Society of America have published a quick introduction guide to help you create a more welcoming environment for children on the autism spectrum and their families during Halloween. After you've taken some time to familiarize yourself with common obstacles, your family may be inclined to display painted blue pumpkins (or yard signs!) outside of your home — doing so indicates you've taken some time to educate yourself and have adjusted your space to be more welcoming for all.
Arianna Esposito, Director of Services and Supports for nonprofit organization Autism Speaks, tells Good Housekeeping that everyone can focus on three areas of improvement to make Halloween more inclusive for any trick-or-treater on the autism spectrum:
Sensory overload: "Halloween decorations can be scary, and they often come with bright, flashing lights and loud sounds," Esposito explains. Try scaling down your front porch decor to keep lighting even and encompassing, allowing children to stand comfortably while they trick or treat.
Dietary restrictions: Due to sensory aversions that are common for most Autistic individuals, some children may have dietary restrictions that don't allow for chewy fruit candies or crunchy chocolate bites. Try to arrange some non-edible treats that you can pass out instead, like small toys or art supplies.
Verbal interactions: "Some children don't communicate verbally and may not say thank you when at your door, or respond to questions," Esposito says. "Expressions of care and gratitude don't have to be verbal or physical." Some individuals may use what's known as stimming to process sensory input around them, she adds, including interactions in trick-or-treating.
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