Less Silence About Silence

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Last week, this photograph of a college football player sitting at a school cafeteria table with a middle-school student with autism went viral:

I understood that picture a little too well; my son sits alone in the cafeteria every day, too. While looking for some help for him last spring, I learned about “lunch-bunch” programs, where teachers or therapists provide organization, facilitate conversations, or simply offer a safe place for kids who can’t find a clique in the cafeteria. These programs have begun to crop up at public schools around the country and offer a lot of promise for kids who sit alone.

One reader, Mike Hugman, emailed me to thank me for the article I wrote on the subject. As a child, he also had a difficult time fitting in with his classmates. He pointed out that you don’t have to have autism to have these problems and agreed that schools could do more to help kids like himself.

Mike said that he “suffered in silence.” Perhaps it is time for less silence about silence. Tell us: Did you have a tough time in the lunchroom at school? Could (and should) schools step in to help kids like Bo, Mike, and my son?

Mike writes:

I was one of those kids who sat alone almost every day, and while I was not autistic, I was extremely shy and didn't know how to break out of my shell. The experience was extremely distressing, since I wanted nothing more than to make friends and fit in but I was completely clueless on how to do that, or who/how to ask for help.

So I suffered in silence, for basically my whole childhood at school. No kid should have to go through what I went through. On top of it being a horrible experience, I graduated high school with such poor social skills that I had to start from scratch. Mathematically, I could do calculus, but socially, I couldn’t do 1 + 1.

I think it’s ludicrous that schools don’t take into account social and emotional development as being equally important, if not more important, than academic development. Pushing kids into the deep end and not helping them when they start drowning does not help them learn to swim. I think that there are good kids who would have taken someone like me under their wing, and helped include me socially. Part of the problem is that kids at this age can be vicious, and needing help from teachers or administrators can easily put you in the "loser" category. That's why I needed some peers to stand up for me and include me.

I think teachers and administrators should be on the lookout for kids who are struggling socially, pull them aside, and help identify friendly, good-natured students with strong social skills who can serve as an ally/buddy for the struggling student. They should have regular meetings with a guidance counselor to evaluate their progress and come up with strategies to help improve, but for the most part teachers/administrators should not directly intervene in the students' social environment because that could easily backfire. Kids should have access to therapy as well.

What autistic students need might be a little different, I can't really speak for that. But it's important for people to realize that not all kids who struggle socially are autistic and their needs might be very different.

Thanks again for your piece, and I hope more people chime in to raise awareness.

To chime in, write to us at hello@theatlantic.com.