Year after appeal to Obama, young man with autism pursues new education options

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Last April, 21-year-old Billy Pagoni made a public plea to President Obama to help him enroll in college to continue his education.

Now Pagoni, who at 18 months was diagnosed with severe autism, is attending Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., where he is finishing his senior year of high school. He lives on campus and is learning to live on his own.

Pagoni's mother, Edith Pagoni, tells he “absolutely loves it” and has made lots of friends.

“It’s made a huge impact on Billy’s self-esteem,” said Edith Pagoni, the director of KNEADS, a nonprofit social and vocational program for adolescents and young adults with autism. “We’re extremely excited for him to graduate this year.”

More than anything, her son wants to go to college and become a chef. But every school the family contacted told them there wasn’t a program available for his specialized needs -- which spurred Pagoni's plea to the president, as reported last year.

Shortly after that, the Pagoni family received several phone calls from the White House with information about different grants and colleges with programs that cater to students with disabilities.

“It was extremely helpful and I was so impressed because they really understood my concern that Billy falls right on the line of high-functioning student and still needing assistance,” Edith Pagoni said.

She explained that for Billy, going to college is still a top goal, but for now, there isn't a program the family feels fully addresses all of his needs.

“He's an eternal student, and he's so much happier knowing he has the ability to go to college … but the programs available now are still not enough,” she said.

While some schools currently offer specialized programs for blind, deaf, ESL and high-functioning Asperger's students, there are hardly any options for more severely autistic children, Pagoni explained.

The family moved from Florida to Connecticut so he could attend Quinnipiac through a program that was able to accommodate him. After that, he will start a program called Roses for Autism, where he will be enrolled in a career training program that helps transition individuals with an autism spectrum disorder into their communities.  The program prepares individuals with autism for finding and maintaining jobs, according to its website.

The program's leaders will see what Billy enjoys -- whether it’s packaging roses, grooming the nursery or something computer-based -- and develop a curriculum for him that will give him the opportunity to integrate into his community when he’s done.

Edith Pagoni thinks there is hope for her son to become a chef and go to college when he finishes the Roses for Autism program.

“Finally, autism is getting looked at in a different way and people are realizing these kids are teachable," she said.

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