When Kids Sit Alone


(So this isn’t the 15-hour, 4-interview article. This is that last night, two hour, one glass of chardonnay article. It’s doing pretty well.)

Travis Rudolph, a wide receiver for the Florida State University football team, was touring a Florida middle school with other players this week when he noticed Bo Peske, an 11-year old with autism, eating alone in the school cafeteria. Rudolph sat down and chatted with Bo, while eating a couple slices of pizza. A school employee took a photo of the two at the table and gave it to his mom. His mom later shared the image on Facebook, along with a note about her appreciation of this small act of kindness.

The mom, Leah Paske, wrote, “A friend of mine sent this beautiful picture to me today and when I saw it with the caption ‘Travis Rudolph is eating lunch with your son’ I replied ‘who is that?’ He said ‘FSU football player’, then I had tears streaming down my face. Travis Rudolph, a wide receiver at Florida State, and several other FSU players visited my sons school today. I’m not sure what exactly made this incredibly kind man share a lunch table with my son, but I’m happy to say that it will not soon be forgotten. This is one day I didn’t have to worry if my sweet boy ate lunch alone, because he sat across from someone who is a hero in many eyes.”

More here.

UPDATE: The Atlantic is looking for readers’ views on this topic!! Chime in.

15 thoughts on “When Kids Sit Alone

  1. Thank you for writing this story. I’ve seen that story so many times on my FB feed, and my thought was always – wtf are those school officials doing? One other solution – which is the one we implement at our middle school – kids sit with their home rooms. The tables basically hold one home room, so everyone sits together. Some people complain, but this way, these sorts of things are much less likely to happen.


    1. My HS (independent, all girls) had assigned seating, multi-grade, changing every two weeks, back in the day, with a teacher at the table. I liked the system, but I think there are limits to how well it can work in different environments.


  2. Eh, I’m going to be the person who mentions that the kid may need a little down time after a hard morning of school, so he may not even be up for spending every single lunch surrounded by chatty kids.

    Obviously, it wouldn’t be a good idea to let a kid sit alone every single day, but some kids are going to need time to recharge after the demands of the school day. It’s hard being “on” all day if it’s not natural to you.


    Early on in elementary school, my daughter was not very social at lunch, but we the adults decided (with advice from her psychologist) to let her have some down time and not push it. She’s since gotten more social at lunch and snack break. (But being a girl helps a lot.)


  3. I liked that you referred to adult intervention/teaching moments as a way to make the “buddies tables” work. There are some extraordinary kids, some with extraordinary skills and experiences, but for the regular kid, navigating the social landscape of middle school probably doesn’t leave a lot of room for internally motivated social courage (like sitting with a kid who is all alone).

    One reason I would hope that teaching intervention might be especially important is that I’ve seen that some of the kids, sitting alone (or on the edges) might enjoy each others company if they can find each other and find their common interests. But, they are still learning how to make those approaches and cross the barriers. In the story, the football player talks to the kid about football — which seems to have been a common enough interest to spark reciprocal interaction. When your common interests are less common it’s harder to find the match.


  4. My first secondary school (public, UK) wasn’t particularly well led, to be honest. But, we had a 90 minute lunch break. Lunch was two sittings, with assigned seating. Each table had 8 places, most had one teacher, and all had a mix of boys of girls, and a mix of years (we were 12-18 year olds, and about half the kids left school at 16, so it skewed a little bit younger). The idea that you would leave vulnerable children to be rejected by their peers (or allow little shits to reject their peers) at lunch time was never considered.

    What you describe — adults leaving children to bully, reject, ignore each other, IS already an adult intervention. Nobody goes to school unless adults make them, and nobody would choose to be at the school with the people who bully, reject and ignore them, if they had the choice. Its up to adults to make that experience humane, or inhumane. In most American schools they choose to make it inhumane.

    And then they ask why all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria. Its because the people in charge let them, rather than making school a place where children learn. That’s my rant for the moment…

    Great article, as usual!


    1. harry b,

      Part of the social problem is that US public middle schools are very, very large. It’s huge stampeding herds of kids all day. (I remember feeling that way about it as a kid, and I went to what most people would consider a small junior-senior high school–probably no more than 600 kids total.)

      The huge anonymous ever-shifting crowd is not a great environment for children that age, especially not autistic children.

      Our kids have gone to a smaller private school since they were 4 and 5, and the social environment in the middle school grades has been SO much better than I remember from the same age. But there’s no “middle school”–just the lower school (PK-6) and the upper school (7-12), with the 7-8-9 and 10-11-12 being somewhat divided. Our autistic oldest had such a good social experience in 8th grade that it boggles my mind.

      I often note that Temple Grandin had very good experiences at a small middle school and small “alternative” high school, but a very bad experience at a large middle school (she describes this in detail in her memoir “Emergence”). I think the “thundering herd” environment is just particularly hard on anybody autistic–there are so many people, and so little opportunity to get to know anybody well while mastering the new academic environment.

      Somewhat related: there’s a theory that we can’t maintain more than 150 meaningful relationships.



    2. “What you describe — adults leaving children to bully, reject, ignore each other, IS already an adult intervention. Nobody goes to school unless adults make them, and nobody would choose to be at the school with the people who bully, reject and ignore them, if they had the choice. Its up to adults to make that experience humane, or inhumane. In most American schools they choose to make it inhumane.”

      Right. In my first draft, I described the lunchroom as a state of nature, but the editor took it out. Too egghead-y, I guess. Otherwise she didn’t touch the piece, which was good.

      The lunchrooms ARE purposively unsupervised in part because of tradition. It’s American libertarianism. And, also in part, because of union rules. Union rules are really strict in NJ. Teachers don’t work during lunch. They would have to pay another staff member to step in to monitor things during that time and they don’t have the money for it.

      Thanks for chiming in, Harry and others!


    3. I agree at some conceptual level that whatever happens at school is the result of adult action. (For instance, when college students shout down or spit on a speaker, it’s obviously the product of the faculty’s desires, despite the crocodile tears shed by some about freedom of expression.) But it’s an exaggeration to say that no one goes to school unless adults make them. Children want to hang out with other children, and there is certainly a subset among them who find the life of the mind (even as experienced by a six-year-old) the most interesting thing in the world. Reading Tom Swift with your friend is so much more interesting than listening to your parents talking about money and what’s for dinner.


      1. Tom Swift!? You’re adorable, and about as ancient as I am. What I see in my kids is video games and Young Adult Fiction, usually featuring a heroic teen who discovers some kind of Powers and/or suffers sex abuse or gender confusion.


  5. Here’s a complicating issue with school lunch rooms: even adult autistic people have a hard time dealing with the complexity of participating in a group conversation.

    The number of people involved in a typical lunch table conversation may make it very difficult for an autistic child to participate meaningfully.


    1. I wasn’t expecting that to post like that–the starting reddit post is not very interesting. The replies are better. For example, people mention avoiding their work lunch room as adults, that a one-on-one conversation is easier to follow, that it’s hard to get a word in edgewise in a group, etc.

      It’s no accident that the successful conversation with the football player was a one-on-one conversation, not a group thing.

      I think that I’m not bad at all in a group setting as an adult, but it’s taken me 40 years to get here.

      I also think a small lunch group in a quieter room with a limited number of people would be much better than trying to do a group lunch in a huge cafeteria. School lunch rooms with hundreds of kids eating at the same time are unbearably loud and very overstimulating.

      Basically, small is good, large is bad.


  6. Only one person has submitted a response. If you want a long comment in the Atlantic, send it in. You’ll almost definitely get it on the website. You can be anonymous.


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