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Blue pumpkins help kids on the autism spectrum navigate Halloween

UPDATED: Wed., Oct. 30, 2019

Anna Williams, executive assistant at the Isaac Foundation, displays blue jack o' lanterns on Oct. 28, 2019. The organization is educating the public by promoting the blue pumpkins, which are meant to be carried by those on the autism spectrum, in order to signify the carrier's potential response to overwhelming situations. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Anna Williams, executive assistant at the Isaac Foundation, displays blue jack o' lanterns on Oct. 28, 2019. The organization is educating the public by promoting the blue pumpkins, which are meant to be carried by those on the autism spectrum, in order to signify the carrier's potential response to overwhelming situations. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

For three years as a toddler, Caleb Lytle wore a Spider-Man costume everyday. He called it his “super suit” and wore it until the elbows and knees had holes and the suit had to be retired, his mom, Holly Lytle, said.

With that love for costumes, the now 11-year-old Caleb’s favorite holiday is, perhaps unsurprisingly, Halloween. And that love is shared by his 16-year-old step-brother, Cooper, who loves candy but hates costumes. Cooper doesn’t even like it when his siblings wear them around the house. Both brothers are on the autism spectrum.

That can make Halloween hard for Cooper. But this year it should be easier when the brothers go out trick-or-treating, this time carrying blue pumpkin candy buckets.

The blue pumpkin is a way to subtly indicate that a child is on the autism spectrum and may react differently to situations that arise while trick-or-treating.

“It gets tiring at every single door to say, ‘I’m sorry, he has autism,’ ” Lytle said. “He doesn’t need to hear people apologizing all the time.”

Lytle is the founder of the Isaac Foundation, a nonprofit that provides educational information grants, and support for the friends and families of people affected by autism.

The blue pumpkin movement has been floating around social media for a few years, Lytle said.

The national organization Autism Speaks shared the blue bucket idea ahead of Halloween last year, and the idea has grown in popularity since.

A Hawaii mother’s Facebook post about how her son would be using a blue bucket for Halloween this year got over 150,000 shares and sparked the idea’s spread across social media.

The idea is similar to the Teal Pumpkin movement that signifies homes that hand out non-food Halloween treats for children with food allergies, Lytle mentioned.

The Isaac Foundation has worked for several years to help raise awareness about how people on the autism spectrum might celebrate Halloween differently.

They have small printable cards that parents can hand out rather than explaining their child’s situation at each house.

One reads, “My little pumpkin has autism, and can not speak, please accept this card as a thank you for being so sweet!” Another reads, “I’m not wearing a costume because I have Sensory Processing Disorder and costumes hurt my skin. I still love celebrating with everyone else.”

The blue pumpkin is a more subtle cue for the community than the cards and a chance to help educate others about what autism looks like, Lytle said.

“If we can educate the community about what the significance of the blue pumpkin is, then people would just know without necessarily having to have a card to prompt them,” Lytle said.

Caleb, who has high-functioning autism, loves picking out his Halloween costume each year, but the spooky music, animatronic displays and masks common in Halloween stores are terrifying for him.

“Going into those stores with all of those, you know, scary costumes, animatronics, all that different stuff is just too overwhelming,” Lytle said.

The Isaac Foundation partnered with Halloween Express on Wellesley Avenue this year to provide a sensory friendly morning a few weeks ago. The store also sells blue pumpkin candy buckets. A map of the store is available on the Isaac Foundation website.

“That just helps people to be able to plan their visit,” Lytle said.

Maps are often helpful for navigating situations that can be overwhelming for people with sensory processing disorder or autism, Lytle said. It helps them know areas to avoid and minimize time navigating an overwhelming store, she added.

When it comes to trick-or-treating, Cooper, who is often non-verbal, follows behind other trick-or-treaters, watching to see which houses seem less overwhelming.

“Adults have fun with Halloween and so they like to make their houses, like, spooky and set up props on their porches that will move or jump,” Lytle said. “I don’t want those people to not have their fun.”

So the family skips those houses and chooses ones that seem manageable.

“He loves Halloween because he loves dressing up and this is the one day a year that he can do it and there’s no stigmas and people don’t make fun of you or anything like that,” Lytle said of Caleb. “It’s not just walking up to a house and saying trick or treat and walking away. For these kids that have sensory differences or disabilities, it’s just there’s so much more to it.”

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