Four adults, ranging in age from 21 to 29, gathered in the Free Library of Philadelphia's Culinary Literary Center, each with a different tool — a chef's knife, a wooden mixing spoon, a metal grater, a baking dish waiting to be buttered.

The budding cooks are participants of this fall's Cooking with Confidence program, a three-class series geared to those on the autism spectrum. The free classes are open to anyone 18 and older who has the ability to use language, with or without an augmentative communication device.

"I'm 23. I can't go trick-or-treating anymore, but I do want to be Beyoncé," Christina Duckett-Brooker said,  buttering a baking dish soon to be filled with veggie-loaded mac and cheese.

Without pausing, she changed the subject. "We're making butterscotch squash," she said to the cooking instructor standing before her, turning a butternut squash into butterscotch-color cubes. Then: "Do you like Whitney Houston?"

The classes, which began in 2017, were established by the Culinary Literary Center in partnership with the Philadelphia Autism Project of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute at Drexel University. Duckett-Brooker — always smiling, always chatting — says she's thrilled to be a part of the educational opportunity.

"The primary goal is centered on the basic life skill of cooking — everyone needs to know how to make a meal, and people with autism are no exception," said Lindsay Shea, program director of the Philadelphia Autism Project. "There's also a huge social component. We hope this helps participants gain the skills they need to feel comfortable having a meal with friends."

Cooking with Confidence student Nasya Henderson (left) and instructor Claire Richardson pour macaroni and cheese into a pan.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Cooking with Confidence student Nasya Henderson (left) and instructor Claire Richardson pour macaroni and cheese into a pan.

According to the most recent Pennsylvania Autism Needs Assessment, more than half of autistic people surveyed reported they wanted more friendships or more romantic relationships, and close to half said they wished they had more friends with whom to socialize or confide in.

Autism Spectrum Disorder spans a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and nonverbal communication.

"There's a wide variety of presentations of autism, and the social deficits are embodied in many, many different ways," Shea said. "An individual may make too much eye contact or too little, or have personal space issues, whether they situate themselves too close or too far from a person they're speaking with, or they might have a conversation with you about trains, and talk only about trains for an entire hour."

Though each person with ASD is different, Shea said everyday skills like sitting down to have a conversation over dinner often become challenging.

"In the cooking classes, there's a wide range of functioning among the participants, and I think that's a bit of the beauty of the class," Shea said. "It's reflective of the span of the autism community, while creating one common goal — learning a skill that everyone in life needs."

John Pagnoni checks to make sure the macaroni and cheese is cooked through. Pagnoni, 29, hopes one day to open a restaurant of his own where he can employ others on the spectrum.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
John Pagnoni checks to make sure the macaroni and cheese is cooked through. Pagnoni, 29, hopes one day to open a restaurant of his own where he can employ others on the spectrum.

The wide variation in what it means to be have autism is clear among the small group at a recent Cooking with Confidence class. One 21-year-old student barely said a word during the two-hour session, keeping her eyes on the grater when given several blocks of cheese to shred. Meanwhile, Beyoncé-aspirant Duckett-Brooker never stopped chattering, whether stirring a pot of pasta, pouring water into everyone's dinner glass, or working with a library volunteer to determine how many sets of silverware were needed for the night. Another participant, John Pagnoni, 29, shared his dreams of one day opening a restaurant.

"I want to employ people on the autism spectrum and give them opportunities like I've been given," Pagnoni  said, pulling out his phone to show off photos of spinach artichoke dip and a cauliflower rice dish with tofu he recently whipped up on his own.

Asked to pour several boxes of pasta into a large pot of boiling water, Pagnoni paused to make sure the instructor, Claire Richardson, knew what she was doing.

"Did you put the salt in the water yet?" he asked, making clear this wasn't his first pasta prep session.

Richardson, who has a 14-year-old son with ASD, has led all four rounds of the Cooking with Confidence series.

"A lot of kids on the spectrum get pigeonholed into certain meals since they don't always like to try anything new," Richardson said. "Like with my son, I wanted to be an encouraging force to get these individuals to step outside of their box. It doesn't matter who you are, everyone needs to learn to eat foods beyond pizza and hot dogs."

Recipes in the cooking series are chosen to be fairly simple and healthful. The mac and cheese that kicked off this round was layered with corn, peas, squash, carrots, and cauliflower. Class two features a smoked cauliflower and veggie quiche;  the final class is pierogies with salsa fresca.

"We try to pair something familiar, like pasta, with a healthy component, sneaking veggies in as best as we can," Richardson said.

Nasya Henderson gets a serving of pasta.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Nasya Henderson gets a serving of pasta.

All the produce creates plenty of opportunities to practice knife skills and other activities, like peeling and seeding.

"I try to gauge their skills — so whether they get a chef's knife or a lettuce knife or just the peeler, we put them to work so that they can start to build their confidence," Richardson said.

Everyone in class is given multiple tasks across two hours and praised positively throughout the process. Halfway through, Pagnoni was assigned to chop a butternut squash while other participants learned to fold napkins and properly set a table.

"We'll find these instances in class where we start to see a caretaker take over a small task, and we give soft reminders that we want the student to give it a try first," said Liz Fitzgerald, director of the Free Library's Culinary Literacy Center. "It becomes as much of a learning experience for the caretaker as it does for the student sometimes."

Funded through a grant that's about to run out, the program is one Fitzgerald and Shea would like to see continue. They're brainstorming ideas for seeking external funding.

"When we opened back in 2014, we started to think about the kinds of people we wanted to serve and began looking at the communities in Philadelphia that were underserved," Fitzgerald said. "Our mission was to open up the kitchen to all Philadelphians, no matter who they were or where they came from. … This program fit right into that, and it has become one of my favorites."

Each class sends participants home with a printed copy of the day's recipe and a canvas grocery bag filled with ingredients. Whether on their own or with the assistance of a caregiver, they're encouraged to use their new skills and confidence to recreate the meal at home. And most often do, showing up with photos at the next week's class of what they've  made.

"Through childhood and adolescence, there's so much going on with families caring for those with autism in terms of just navigating the system — figuring out how to get their kid to and from school, getting them into the right classrooms, safety concerns," Shea said. "With so many competing demands, there's not as much energy left to dive into these smaller skills that many of us were taught from our parents, like learning how to chop an onion or not to put your elbows on the table. But it's not too late for them to learn."

As the students gathered around the table to share in the goodness of their labor, many praised how delicious the pasta turned out. Pagnoni chatted about additions he'd make, like crab or kale. Nasya Henderson quietly asked for plain noodles.

"You have to try it first, Nasya," Richardson said. Henderson took a bite, followed by another and another before she slowly pushed her bowl aside.

The students are given a survey to fill out after class, and everyone — Henderson included — marked the highest rating, "good," when asked about the overall experience. They all also said the leaders did a good job helping them learn.

"Out of all the different cooking classes I've taught over the years, this one remains my favorite," Richardson said. "The participants have no filter; they're completely genuine and are just really hilarious. And I leave knowing that I'm building their confidence to go out and experience an important part of life."