About That Blue Pumpkin
At a Glance
Have you seen or heard of the blue pumpkin? We take a brief deep dive into where it started.
We'll also cover the messages it sends, intentionally or unintentionally.
Finally, we'll discuss whether its met its presumed goals.
It’s officially autumn, and if you’ve spent any amount of time at a big box store, catching up with friends and family on social media, or following the news you have almost certainly heard about the ongoing trend of putting out a blue pumpkin to raise awareness about autism.
If you feel like you’re aware of the blue pumpkin phenomenon and its connection to autism but also like you’re not 100% sure what it’s about then you’re not alone! You may have even participated in it with the best of intentions.
After all, who wouldn’t want trick or treating to become a more welcoming experience for autistic people?
Unfortunately there are some red flags in this practice that are worth a closer look, most notably that autistic people and autism families do not universally appreciate this effort.
Having good intentions is incredibly important, but part of having good intentions is sometimes taking a step back and more carefully examining our impact.
The primary goal of this blog post is to examine some of the ways that the blue pumpkin can manifest, the messages it sends intentionally or unintentionally, and whether it has made an impact with regard to meeting its presumed goals.
It should be telling that there is pushback on this movement from autistic people and autism families, but it is also worth examining how the goals around a well intentioned movement like this one are framed, whether those are the goals we should be pursuing, and whether the movement ultimately achieves those goals.
How did the movement get started?
The exact origins of the blue pumpkin are not well defined, but our friends at Good Housekeeping offered a couple of potential starting points:
The movement may have been inspired by the Teal Pumpkin Project, which was originally launched in 2013 to raise awareness around families facing severe food allergies and to encourage supportive homes to offer alternative non-food treats.
GH could not confirm the exact origin point of using blue pumpkins for educating the public about autism, but did cite a post from a family going back to 2018.
How is it supposed to work in theory?
There are two common modes of action people mention when they talk about blue pumpkins, both with a core theme of accepting communication differences in autistic trick or treaters.
The first is displaying a blue pumpkin outside your home, either to signify that an autistic person lives in the household or that the household is autism-friendly.
The second is that autistic trick-or-treaters use a blue pumpkin candy pail to signify that they are autistic.
In theory, people are meant to see that symbol, understand that the person carrying it may communicate differently from the neurotypical norm, and thereby know to respect that person’s communication differences. In theory, they find out about it by seeing their neighbors displaying blue pumpkins and asking about it.
What are some of the practical implications?
This first actionable item we often see is displaying a blue pumpkin outside your house, either as an autism family or to signal your support for autistic trick-or-treaters.
The decision to display the blue pumpkin theoretically comes with the role of spreading awareness, particularly via educating curious neighbors about autism acceptance.
While the degree of education isn’t often specified, it commonly includes letting people know that trick-or-treaters carrying a blue pumpkin pail are autistic and may not communicate according to an expected social script.
Presuming our combined grassroots and social media efforts are effective, it is worth considering whether a largely neurotypical group of promoters is unilaterally placing a new set of social expectations on autistic people, and what autistic people are getting in this supposed bargain.
Pressure of Public Disclosure
The primary burden that the blue pumpkin initiative places on autistic trick-or-treaters and their families is that it requires public disclosure in exchange for the possibility of being treated with the respect they should already be getting.
Disclosure is already a challenging personal decision for many autistic people, and it is understandable that many would not appreciate it being treated as a prerequisite for potential fair treatment.
One might reasonably argue that blue pumpkins are not so ubiquitous that everyone would know exactly what a blue pumpkin pail means, but teaching everyone what it means is a goal of the campaign.
The more that this campaign succeeds, the more autistic people and families will have to make this uncomfortable public choice.
Instead, Let's Focus on Respecting Communication Differences
To whatever extent this campaign is capable of spreading awareness, it would be better off focusing on telling people to respect communication differences of all kinds and that they do not need to know whether or not someone is autistic to do so.
While it is true that we should celebrate the differences of autistic people who choose to share those differences, it is also true that we should not unnecessarily force that choice on autistic people.
While Halloween may feel like just one night and “just being nice and handing out the candy” may feel like an extremely basic accommodation, the attitude around accommodations both simple and complex has implications that extend into school and the workplace.
The more we can offer accommodations without requiring some kind of proof that the accommodation is “deserved,” the more power autistic people will have to make the personal decision of disclosure on their own.
To whatever extent this campaign is capable of spreading a message, it would be better off setting the symbolism aside and raising awareness about the reality that some people communicate differently, and we should offer them the basic accommodation of not requiring a specific script on Halloween.
That type of message can benefit autistic people without asking them to publicly self-identify in return while also including all non-autistic people who communicate differently.
Lessons to Be Learned
If there is a lesson to be drawn from this campaign that appears so thoughtful on the surface, it is that we should be extremely careful in considering what we are asking of the people we are claiming to help and the potential implications of a campaign going according to plan.
Autistic people deserve the opportunity to choose when they are most comfortable approaching the question of disclosure and any plan attempting to help autistic people should be thinking very carefully about any way in which they might be requiring autistic people to unnecessarily label themselves.
The backlash against blue pumpkins didn’t take long to arrive, but it hasn’t stopped the movement in its tracks either.
While it can be great to chat with folks about some of the potential harms of the blue pumpkin campaign, if you’re still itching to get a message out we strongly recommend talking about accepting differences in communication!
If you’re interested in hearing about more campaigns that may do more harm than good or have a suggestion of your own we would love to hear it at email@example.com.
Until next time, may we all respect each other’s communication differences and teach others to do the same!