Last year my son, dressed as Owlette from “PJ Masks,” mostly remembered to say “trick or treat” and mostly remembered to say “thank you.” We had practiced it over and over again in the weeks leading up to Halloween because who doesn’t like a dress rehearsal for something that’s supposed to be fun?
As with many autistic kids, my son struggles with social expectations. I’ve tried to educate strangers about autism, mostly as a way to solicit compassion or understanding for a child whose behavior is easily misinterpreted. It’s a struggle. I only have to read the comments on a recent story I wrote about taking my sons to the movies to appreciate how mean people can be when kids with special needs are in public places.
But I just can’t get behind this blue-bucket movement for Halloween. (This is separate from the Teal Pumpkin Project that encourages treat-givers to offer toys and trinkets at Halloween for kids with food allergies. I do fully support that.)
The idea behind the blue bucket is to signal that the tricker-treater may have a reason not to speak or ask politely or to express the appropriate amount of gratitude for a miniature Mars bar. Or they may look too old. Or may not even be in costume.
I get it. When I take Black Panther out trick-or-treating this week, I don’t want people to give him a hard time if he doesn’t act the way they think a 4-foot warrior from Wakanda should act. But he also shouldn’t have to disclose his diagnosis in exchange for kindness.
This isn’t about hiding. Or about shame. My son knows he is autistic, and in our house we celebrate his differences and the amazing way he views and interacts with the world. But just in case, I asked him if he wanted to carry a blue pumpkin this Halloween to let people know he’s autistic. He looked at me blankly. “But pumpkins are orange.” Of course pumpkins are orange! Most linear, rigid-thinkers are not going to consent to carry a pumpkin that’s the wrong color. Unsure? Ask an autistic person.
Maybe that’s why I am pushing back against the blue-bucket movement. Autistic people generally don’t like the idea. In one recent post, an autistic mother of three autistic children wrote that “the ‘awareness’ that really needs to get out is that people passing out candy have no right to demand that anyone speak or explain their private medical information.”
Some parents might see the blue bucket as a way to help our kids. I know the many (many) people who alerted me to the idea did so with good intentions. Our society is becoming more aware of autism, more open to inclusion, and my son will benefit from that. But he also shouldn’t have to tell a stranger he is autistic to get some chocolate.
Enough with the blue pumpkins.
If you have your light on this Halloween, if you plan to invite trick-or-treaters for candy or snacks or toys or whatever you want to hand out, how about this instead? Smile and hand out the candy. To a big kid, little kid, kid in a costume, kid not in a costume, kid who is verbal, kid who is nonverbal, kid who can hold it together, kid who can't hold it together. Just hand out the candy. Or turn your light off.
Jackie Spinner was a staff writer for The Washington Post for 14 years. She is now an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, and the mother of two Moroccan-born sons.