Thursday, September 1, 2016

The important lesson this viral photo can teach children

It's happened, once again: A kind gesture for a child with special needs is going viral, this time involving a football player and a boy with autism. And once again, I'm wondering about the "after" part of the happy.

On Tuesday, Florida State Seminoles player Travis Rudolph and several teammates visited Montford Middle School in Tallahassee. When Rudolph noticed student Bo Paske alone at lunchtime in the cafeteria, reports the Orlando Sentinel, he walked over and asked if he could sit with him. Bo said yes, told him his name and the two started talking football. "It was really easy to [talk] with him," Rudolph said. "He had a nice smile on his face. He was a warm person."

Someone at school snapped a photo and sent it to Bo's mom, Leah. She wrote a heartfelt post on Facebook, and shared the photo.

This morning, Dave sent me a link to the New York Post article, headlined "Florida State Player's Incredible Gesture Will Bring You To Tears." For sure, a lot of people out there will find this story heartwarming. Just as people have been moved by viral stories about children with autism getting an outpouring of birthday cards, packages and celebrations from well-meaning strangers who've read about their lack of friends. Just as people get the warm fuzzies from stories of football teams allowing players with disabilities to score touchdowns.

Deeds like Travis Rudolph's are happy-making and validating for children with special needs. Confidence-boosting too, I'll bet. As a special needs mom, I get that rush of gratitude you feel when someone treats your child with kindness and respect. Still, these stories raise questions even as they melt hearts.

What happens to these kids after the good deed is done? Do these happenings alter the mindsets and attitudes of fellow students toward their peer with special needs? Do they make school administrators realize they need to step up inclusion efforts? To be sure, the social scene in cafeterias can be brutal for many students, but for one with autism, both the crowds and the din may add to their challenges there.

When I read these stories, I hope that after the headlines stop cropping up on our news feeds, life does change for the better for the children and teens who are recipients of good deeds. Actually, these stories have the power to change the lives of children with special needs everywhere. Parents could use the story of Travis Rudolph and Bo as a conversation starter for a discussion with their children about peers with disabilities, adjusting the questions to be age-appropriate.

"Why do you think that boy was sitting alone at lunch?" you could ask.

"How do you think you would feel if you had nobody to sit with at lunch?"

"What do you think of what this football player did?"

"If you saw a child sitting alone at lunchtime, what could you do?"

And then remind them, because they likely don't understand, that it's pretty easy to approach a peer with special needs. Maybe that boy or girl won't want to talk with them right then and there, because making friends can be hard for some kids with autism. Maybe he won't look right at them. Maybe he'll speak slowly or use an iPad to say his words. Maybe he'll make a movement like flapping his hands because he'll be excited. But a child could try. As I always say, just start with "Hi."

Photo: Facebook


  1. There are two even bigger problems with the story. Well, one with what happened, and one with the reporting.

    1) What if Bo likes to eat alone? Maybe it's not that he "doesn't mind" sitting alone but actually prefers that? I would have 1000% preferred sitting alone at lunch to having a strange adult sit across from me suddenly. That never happened. I did have other children sit with me sometimes. They teased me. Alone was much better. But alone doesn't just have to be better as an alternative to being teased. It can sometimes just be better. Quieter. Time to think. Time to not have to process language and social cues.

    2) We now know what the football player thought, what the child's mother thought and what the entire internet thought. No one writing the articles seems to have even considered what the child thought. He is turned into an object of the story.

    As an autistic and otherwise disabled adult, I don't get any warm fuzzies from a story like this at all. I just get tired.

    I'm going to work in a few minutes, in my job I love caring for children with developmental disabilities. And probably a parent will tell me about their kid who plays alone at recess. And probably I will be the first adult ever to ask the kid what they LIKE to do at recess. Are there the kids who want to be included and are left out? Sure. But there's also the kid who wants to look for rocks and the one who wants to play math games on the computer. Why don't we ask that question more? And why don't we respect the answer?

    Just once I'd like to see the news story: non-disabled person respected the preference and right of a disabled person to be left alone!

    1. Thank you, these are excellent (and important) points. In this case, as was reported, Bo was receptive to having the football player sit with him. In general, these sorts of stories do not quote the child with special needs. I'm not sure if it's because the reporters don't try or there is an access problem reaching the child. Yesterday, I sent a Facebook message to Bo's mom with a few questions, including what Bo had told her about what happened. I didn't hear back from her but if I do, I will post as an addendum.

    2. When I read this story, my first thought about him sitting alone was because he wanted to, not because he had no friends. My son gets so overwhelmed even at home that he wants to sit by himself. In fact, on Tuesday evening, he ate his dinner on the dining room floor while the rest of us sat at the table. At school, the kids *have* to sit together, and I don't think it's an issue for him, but he knows at home that he can have some genuine alone time (or quasi-alone time, since he was only a couple of feet away the other night) and so he takes advantage of it.

      Our son also plays alone at recess most of the time. Other kids will play with him (and this year, he has actually ASKED kids to play with him, a huge step for him), but not for long, so he thinks that no one likes him/wants to play with him. It's hard explaining to him that most kids move from activity to activity quickly, while he prefers to keep doing the same thing, without making him feel bad (he asked me the other day why kids are so mean to him, since the two kids he asked to play ignored him). He honestly would be happier cleaning up the playground (not that it's ever in need of it) or collecting acorns (which he has done every day this week) than play with kids sometimes, but I know he desperately wants friends. It is just so hard for him, so I do see my son in this photo: a kid who is socially awkward, lovable, kind, caring, funny, smart ... but just different enough that he is often alone. :\

  2. I definitely agree with the first point of the above commenter. In middle school sometimes I just wanted to sit alone but the lunch monitors would always bring over other kids to sit with me and it was awkward. It probably looked like I had no friends while in reality I was just anxious and needed some alone time. In high school, I was able to peacefully sit alone. I hope the after part of the story is that the other students imitate the football player and see it ok and even cool to sit with Bo. We can only hope one kind action will create a genuine ripple effect.

  3. I don't like having people be "stuck" with me out of some obligation because this just leads to resentment on both parts. The desire to be alone may not necessarily be a desire in all cases; in some, it is a counterphobic fear response. I have an intense fear of rejection, so I first reject others to protect myself. I am a counterphobic 6w7. Type Sixes are naturally suspicious and guarded. If I were phobic, I would let down my guard with others more easily in order to avoid getting rejected. However, since I am counterphobic, I charge into my fears headfirst. I always assume that people want to be alone since I have this "desire". I have a tendency to leave friends after a year or so because they tend to either move or become better friends with my other friends.

  4. Articles about people with disabilities generally don't quote any people with disabilities, even if the article is specifically about something the disabled person did. Adult or child. It's even less likely in this case when the article is about something a non-disabled person did to a disabled person. That's part of what we mean when we say we are treated as objects.

    I guess I feel the standard to judge the situation should go above "was receptive to" and actually up to something like "wanted" or "enjoyed." We know how the football player, Bo's mother and the entire internet felt about Bo eating alone (bad) and about his having company (amazing) but the only person whose opinion actually matters here is Bo's.

    The Autistic community has created these amazing things called Color Communication badges for conferences and other group events. You put it on Green if you want people to talk to you, Yellow if you only want to interact with people you already know and Red if you want to be left alone. A person sitting alone in the cafeteria can signal what they want. There's two parts here. One is the signal. The other is a community expectation that a Yellow or Red signal will be respected.

    We really need more things like that to be used in schools to support people to make choices about how to spend "free time" and about helping those choices be respected. Karla Fisher has a great visual called "Our breaks aren't like your breaks" showing the damage that can be done when neurotypical and non-disabled preferences are assumed to be best for everyone.

    1. Color Communication badges are a truly great idea, thanks for letting me know about them and Karla Fisher's eye-opening visual as well. If you would ever be game to guest post about the spot-on points you've brought up here about people needing to rethink free time when it comes to kids/adults with autism, I would very much welcome that. My email is

  5. Must admit to being baffled by the word "Incredible" in the headline "Florida State Player's Incredible Gesture Will Bring You To Tears"

    Sure it was nice and made a statement, assuming the kid was receptive to the gesture (I enjoyed reading first person comments above to better understand) but Incredible? Hmmm. Literally means something that is beyond the credible or possible. Meteor showers? Tidal waves? Said sports star flying a rocket to the moon to sit with this kid? Those are incredible. A sports star giving a kid special attention? Wonderful gesture but not incredible.

    Sound like click-bait reporting to me. Love your balanced commentary as always Ellen! And other commenters - really enjoyed your perspective! I learn something every day.


Thanks for sharing!