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Chester County Press

Local man achieving goals, thanks to Pa. autism partnership

02/19/2019 12:31PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

For 30-year-old John Pagnoni, his life and the dreams that are contained within it are measured in the recipes he lovingly prepares, and in his goal to someday operate his own restaurant that specializes in ethnic food.

Diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome when he was in high school, Pagnoni doesn’t live according to the autism spectrum, but by the passion he has for the culinary arts, which he is able to do as a dietary aide at Pocopson Home, a long-term healthcare facility in West Chester.  

Pagnoni’s aspirations are also closely tethered to the assistance he receives from Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health’s Community Adult Autism Partnership Program (CAAPP), an individualized and innovative community-based support service for adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and other disabilities. Currently serving Chester, Montgomery and Delaware counties, the program provides instruction and support across community, home and work environments that will help individuals become productive, socially connected, and personally fulfilled members of their local communities.

Founded in 1912, Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health is a leader in the evolving field of behavioral healthcare, through a comprehensive national network of clinical, therapeutic, educational, and employment programs and services that positively impact the lives of tens of thousands of children and adults.  

Through programs like the CAAPP, Devereux serves those living in the autism spectrum, as well as assists those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Programs include assessments; interventions and support; transition and independent life services; family and professional training; research and innovation; and advocacy and public education.

“The program’s goal is for all of our participants to get into the community in ways that are most meaningful for them,” said CAAPP Program Director Amanda Duffy. “For some, it’s employment. For others, it’s just getting out of the house, or making friends or going shopping. It’s about strengthening one’s socialization skills, and for each individual, we look at the big picture and address goals systematically, in determining how we can help that person.”

“Each individual in the program has several people who help them, and John has a really strong team of individuals who help him work toward where he ultimately wants to be,” said Sasha Birosik, CAAPP’s community outreach director. “After we receive a recommendation from the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, we begin to learn about each individual, what he is interested in, and what his path toward employment is.

“We do assessments that allow us to gauge what an individual’s skills are, and what their career path is, and how we can help them make those steps. From that, we also assist the individual with the job-seeking process. We also provide on-the-job support, such as learning new tasks, how to interact with co-workers, and providing support and job coaching.”

Growing up in Glen Mills, Pagnoni developed an early interest in cooking by watching such chefs at Bobby Flay and Emeril Lagasse apply their skills on television. It was a classroom of observation that Pagnoni later took to the Hyram G. Andrews Center in Johnstown, Pa., a school well recognized for providing educational opportunities for students on the autism spectrum. He spent four years at Andrews specializing in the culinary arts, an education that has been complimented by his five-year association with the CAAPP.

As one of 130 beneficiaries of the program, Pagnoni has learned to manage his finances, form more lasting friendships, increase his socialization skills, and stimulate his career goals by accompanying a CAAPP staffer on visits to restaurants to speak with chefs. He’s even prepared large-scale dishes for CAAPP events.

“I could tell John’s passion from early on, and how much he wanted to learn,” said Jose Negron, Pagnoni’s supervisor at Pocopson. “Sometimes John will make an incredible meal at home -- a jambalaya dish or an entrée made with tofu, for instance -- and bring it to me. I will taste it and tell him, ‘I think you may be in the wrong job, John. You need to someday open your own restaurant.’”

In the hustle and flow of preparing hundreds of meals a day for Pocopson’s residents, Negron said that it is not uncommon for him to answer several of Pagnoni’s questions. In fact, Negron often receives advice from Pagnoni.

“I always tell John, ‘Don’t be afraid to ask questions,’ and John will certainly ask the questions,” Negron said. “I’ve been at Pocopson for 16 years, and I’ve seen many people come here for their paycheck, who put their eight hours in and leave, but I’ve never met anyone like John. His passion is stronger than anyone I’ve ever worked with.”

Birosik recently accompanied Pagnoni on a cooking program in Philadelphia, and saw him help others with their recipes.

“I think it’s amazing to see stories like John’s and some of the other individuals we serve, because sometimes people underestimate them,” she said. “Then you see people like John, and you begin to understand how much they can accomplish. We begin to see these individuals become a part of their communities, and seeing those connections and hearing these success stories is inspiring.”

While Pagnoni understands that the complexity of accomplishing his dream is filled with the necessary hurdles, he’s also well underway in preparing to get there. He’s building his portfolio through cooking classes, continuing to receive on-the-job training at the Pocopson Home, and preparing meals for residents at a homeless shelter in West Chester, for students at a local YMCA, and for the CAAPP holiday party.

Pagnoni is also creating his future restaurant’s business plan, which he said includes one special caveat.

“I want to employ people on the autism spectrum at the restaurant, and give them opportunities like I’ve been given,” Pagnoni said. “I don’t see many career placements for kids on the spectrum. They usually get grocery store bagging jobs, and I think some of us could do more if we’re given the opportunity. Since I’ve been here at Devereux, I’ve been seeing what I can do, and what others like me can do.”  

To learn more about the Community Adult Autism Partnership Program at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health, contact Program Director Amanda Duffy at (610) 688-8597, or visit

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].