Inviting stigma or squashing it? Use of blue pumpkins for trick-or-treaters with autism debated

Pumpkins — specifically blue ones — have become a subject of contention between Autism Canada and some parents who are adopting the practice of using blue candy-carriers to identify trick-or-treaters with autism this Halloween.

"All children should be out trick-or-treating, because you're only young once," Arlene Reid said Tuesday night, as she and her 15-year-old son, Jacob— who has autism — painted his pumpkin blue.

"He can't say 'trick-or-treat' sometimes, or he forgets to say 'thank you,'" said Arlene, who serves as a school trustee in the Winnipeg School Division. "I think the blue pumpkin will help us to identify there's something unique about him."

The blue pumpkin initiative follows the similar use of teal pumpkins, which was organized by Food Allergy Research and Education to highlight food allergies. A teal pumpkin placed outside a home indicates the homeowners are offering alternative treats for those with food allergies.

This is the first year the Reids are using the blue pumpkin method. Arlene Reid says last year, her six-foot-two son — who she says is normally very shy — was told at some homes that he was too old to be collecting candy, or was chided for not saying "trick-or-treat."

But Dermot Cleary, chair of Autism Canada, said the organization doesn't support the viral movement, arguing that creating labels can be harmful.

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"We don't believe there should be identifiers for autism that are expected or become the default way of operating," said Cleary.

"We believe that kind of identification in order to enjoy Halloween is inappropriate."

He added that the colour blue is not an identifier of autism, and exposing any child as someone with autism without reason is not something Autism Canada supports.

Autism Canada reached its position after consulting with people on the autism spectrum, and received a consensus vote against backing the movement.

"This is not something that those on the spectrum who are able to speak for themselves as adults, who have lived that experience, wish to see take place, and we defer to their views above all else," he said.

The viral movement has caught on because it's an attractive proposition on the surface level, said Cleary, but he notes there are other ways to achieve the same goal.

"It could be simply done with with a neat name tag that describes 'I'm unable to speak to you tonight, but I want to say happy Halloween.' It could be that simple," said Cleary.

The Autism Society Manitoba said it's taking a neutral approach, leaving it to families to decide what's best for their kids.

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"We feel that every family and every situation is different. Some families may embrace a method of letting people know that their child has autism.… Others may feel that they should not have to explain their child's reaction or lack of reaction to typical Halloween rituals," the society wrote in an email to CBC. 

"Autism is not a one size fits all disability, so coping mechanisms can't be either." 

Years of ignorance

Reid said she understands Autism Canada's stance, and that of parents who are against the use of blue pumpkins.

Even in her own household, the blue pumpkins are being used in a "case-by-case" basis — they're not making one for her seven-year-old son, Ryder, who also has autism.

"Ryder is high-functioning. I don't need to worry about him as much — he's comfortable," she said.

But she says from what she's personally experienced, there's still a lot of ignorance around autism.

"The more awareness and the more acceptance that we can get for autism, the more tools that we have at our disposal," she said.

Tyson Koschik/CBC

For years, Reid carried cards explaining that Jacob has autism, which she could give out to de-escalate situations where he may have been acting out in a public place — but even still, she says she and Jacob were frequently met with negativity.

"The judgment from other parents that don't understand is one of the hardest things to deal with — the rejection that we get in stores, the misunderstanding we get when we go to stores and we have issues, the rude comments we get. It's heartbreaking."

Tyson Koschik/CBC

She notes that there are usually no outwardly obvious signs that someone has autism, and so using a blue pumpkin shouldn't be frowned upon.

"[The] last thing I want to do is single my child out because they have a special need. We don't look down on people for using a white cane, or if they have hearing aids, because those are tools to help them."

Real issues overlooked

While Autism Canada is not endorsing the use of blue pumpkins, the organization is using interest in the initiative to talk about the broader issues people living with autism face, Cleary said.

"This is not a brief experience — this is there for the individual's lifetime," said Cleary. "We are sorely lacking support for those individuals across the lifespan, and that needs to be addressed."

The easiest way to address that lack of support is to implement a plan, said Cleary, but he said the federal government doesn't currently have one in place.

"We've been asking for a national strategy for autism for 20 years … and it hasn't been done yet," he said.

Particularly in light of changes to autism programs proposed by the provincial government in Ontario — which later backed away from those plans — Cleary says action on support for people with autism is needed immediately. 

"We're reaching a critical mass with autism. It is starting to grow to the extent that it is crippling from a budgetary standpoint."