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Inclusive Halloween: The problem with colour coded pumpkins

“There’s rarely a need for codes. You’re not a spy.”

I’m seeing the annual chat and celebration about colour-coded, inclusive Halloween pumpkin buckets that kids collect sweets in when trick or treating. For example, one I saw was ‘blue for autism, teal for peanut allergies’.

This might sound like a lovely concept, but like many accessibility ‘solutions’, it’s actually pretty flawed.

Here’s a quick rundown of why.

What’s wrong with colour coded pumpkins?

For the treat-givers

Firstly, some reasons this approach is difficult for the people at their doors giving out sweets for Halloween.

  • Colour vision: Starting with the basics, not everyone sees colour. Even people with standard colour vision are highly likely to confuse something like teal and blue, on a dark night.
  • Awareness: For this to work, everyone, without exception, needs to know what the colours represent. And they need to know what they’re supposed to do about it. This is not realistically practical.
  • Executive processing: Assuming someone can distinguish the colour and is aware of the system, they still need to remember it all in the moment. Remember what to do, remember the colours, and process all the information, all over the course of a short interaction.

For the treat-getters

From the point of view of the kids out trick or treating – or guising, as we call it here in Scotland – there are still problems:

  • Allergies and trust: If you have a severe allergy, there’s no way you – or your parents – would trust the colour code system. People might not know the code; they might not understand the allergy, or they might have misread ingredients. I have allergies, and even in a restaurant or with friends, I double check. I read the wrapper for myself if possible.
  • Varying solutions: If you are autistic, what is your colour coded bucket asking? Some posts I’ve seen relate it to being non-speaking. Some autistic kids don’t speak at all, others don’t speak under stress. Equally some autistic kids will metaphorically talk your arm off and never let you shut the door. What does the bucket colour really ask people to do?
  • Othering: Neurodivergent kids have a hard enough time as it is. It’s not going to make them feel more included if you ask them to carry a big sign that says they’re different, especially when it’s one that’s likely to make people speak down to them, or patronise them.
  • Colour associations: Blue for autism in general is problematic because of its association with Autism Speaks, an organisation that can often do more harm than good for autistic people.

The problem with blue for autism – The Conversation

Inclusive Halloween treats

So what’s the solution? How can you make sure Halloween is an inclusive experience for trick-or-treaters/guisers?

For the treat-givers

  • Be in or be out: Halloween is a messy, loud, overwhelming experience. If you choose to open your door to kids and you have sweeties to give them, give them the sweeties. Talk to them, but if they don’t talk back or are being ‘weird’, then accept that. If you don’t want to open your door to kids on Halloween, don’t open the door. That’s ok too.
  • Avoid peanuts: If you’re buying treats to give out at Halloween, don’t buy stuff with nuts in. It’s a common allergen, and easily avoided. Buying things free from gluten, gelatin, or dairy is useful too. It can get expensive to have everything totally allergen-free, but you could buy a range of options.
  • Ask and label: Ask kids if they have any allergies if it’s feasible. Either way, make sure there’s an ingredients list for your treats. Some folk like to avoid to much packaging at Halloween and give out home baked treats instead. Go for it. But have a few things on hand still in their wrappers for people with allergies.

For the treat-getters

  • Respect people who are out: Different neighbourhoods have different systems for showing who’s ‘open’ to Halloween visitors. If a house clearly isn’t participating, or doesn’t open the door, respect that. Maybe they are grumpy killjoys. But it’s also very possible they can’t get to the door. They might be overwhelmed by the event. They might not have the money for sweets. Don’t judge.
  • Give needs explicitly: Writing ‘I am allergic to peanuts’ on the bucket is a much more straightforward way to communicate a peanut allergy. Apply this to whatever else you need treat-givers to know. Make sure the message is short and simple, and remember there’s no guarantee everyone will read it.
  • Let your kid choose: If your kid wants to join in a loud, wild Halloween event, support them to do that. But if your child is overwhelmed by Halloween, let them stay at home if they want to. Or set up something quiet and preplanned, perhaps with a neighbour or friend who knows your child and understands their needs.

Learning accessibility from a pumpkin

The lessons here apply more widely than Halloween. Setting up complicated systems for access than involve codes that people have to learn about, notice and understand is not sustainable.

Instead, try for:

  • Accessibility by default: Design in a way that meets access needs from the start. Metaphorically, this is like ‘Avoid buying sweets with allergens’.
  • Clear, simple questions: Ask about access needs in a straightforward way and let people tell you in a straightforward way. There’s rarely a need for codes. You’re not a spy.
  • Respect needs and choices: Give people options to participate, and flexible ways to do that in a way that works for them. At the same time, respect when they don’t want to join in, without labelling them as ‘weird’ or a ‘killjoy’.

Happy Halloween! May you enjoy it in the way that works best for you.

1 thought on “Inclusive Halloween: The problem with colour coded pumpkins”

  1. Great read Lizzie! I clicked not knowing anything about colour coded pumpkins but with full awareness how overwhelming Halloween can be. I hope you have a pleasant one!
    Big hug,

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