Penrose to gain autism awareness


Diners do not often yield teachable moments, but Melissa Bressi and the Penrose Diner, 2016 Penrose Ave., are hoping to transform an unpleasant experience into an exercise on appreciating differences.

The two became unlikely partners Jan. 28, when a misunderstanding involving her 7-year-old autistic son Christopher Bressi led the mother to depart the establishment.

“Christopher is an extremely intelligent, high functioning boy,” Bressi said Monday of the first-grader at Epiphany of Our Lord School, 1248 Jackson St.

Courtesy of the Germantown-based Green Tree School, which empowers special-needs individuals through various measures, the diner will begin to better its interaction with autistic individuals by participating in a March 19 training session.

At home, family members have no problem interacting with one another. Christopher eagerly played a board game with his mother, sister Samantha, 9, and brother Louis, 3, in their home on the 2600 block of South Chadwick Street before meeting friends for outside activities. His day may sound customary for someone similarly aged, but it marked another triumph in his wrestling with a form of autism spectrum disorder.

“Christopher was diagnosed in the fall of 2008,” Bressi said, noting his status prompted her to pursue a career in offering assistance to parents of special-needs children.

As she had associated autism with poor or limited speaking skills, she had not expected her offspring to receive that classification because he has always possessed deft language abilities. Expressive language sometimes troubles Christopher as he contends with a sensory processing disorder, with occasional declines in attention and focus and bouts with frustration stemming from desires for order also presenting challenges, though Epiphany’s assistance has aided him greatly.

As no uniformity marks children on the spectrum, his mother stressed practicing patience and intensifying awareness when spending time with autistic children. Her clan’s late January visit to the Penrose gave her proof of the work that must occur for acceptance to be persistent, though Bressi had foreseen a typically enjoyable Saturday evening in its confines.

“We had enjoyed many meals there,” she said.

The aforementioned date brought no such comfort, as management belittled her by voicing gripes about the condition of a menu that Christopher had handled, she said.

“It was poor judgment on their part in reacting to a menial situation,” Bressi said.

Christopher profusely apologized, with his mother announcing her son’s condition as a way to have the employees understand his action, which involved adjusting the order guide’s spiral holder. When matters intensified, she decided to leave yet had to compensate the diner for the menu.

“I was mortified,” Bressi said. “I just did not understand why it had to escalate into something so hurtful.”

Penrose owner Dimitri Kolovos, who was not present at the time of the incident, issued a televised apology that Bressi let her children view to facilitate forgiveness. As his staff is sizeable, his location will require at least one more consultation. For next month’s gathering and whatever future assistance he receives, he is happy and sees such guidance as mandatory for similar establishments.

“Everyone in the service industry needs to be aware of different situations,” he said.

Louie Berman cannot surmise why the Bressis’ situation exploded either, but he wants no equivalent dilemma ever to outrage another family. A resident of the 100 block of McClellan Street, he has an autistic son and serves on the board of Green Tree School. The head of Louie’s Voice, which provides guidance through its “Speaking up for Autism” mantra, he learned of the Penrose incident and saw an opportunity to convey knowledge.

“I knew I had to find the means to secure some sense of resolution,” the Pennsport dweller said.

As one out of every 110 U.S. children faces autism, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he knew his idea would need to be capable of being replicated.

“I talked with Penrose people and told them of sensitivity training options,” Berman said.

Meeting acceptance, he corresponded with Green Tree, which, Executive Director Dr. Herman Axelrod said, assists nearly 100 students from almost 40 schools daily.

“Autistic children often have amazing abilities,” Dr. Eric Mitchell, a Green Tree consulting psychologist, said.

Like Bressi, he pinpointed the lack of a universal autistic trait to accentuate diligence in approaching a situation involving an affected person.

“If you know one person with autism, that’s just it, you know one person with autism,” he said.

For six years, his employee has fostered a sister organization, the Green Tree Partnerships. The school has designed the initiative to “assist institutions in building their capacities through a broad range of innovative, data-driven educational approaches that have helped numerous students make behavioral, social and academic progress,” according to its website.

Mitchell has conducted many seminars for Green Tree and will likely guide the upcoming session at the Penrose, during which Green Tree pupils will interact with some of Kolovos’ staff to become more prepared to serve nontraditional populations fairly and respectfully.

“Such sessions make for more friendly places for everyone,” Axelrod said.

“When a place recognizes the value of differences, it’s good for business,” Mitchell added.

Kolovos expressed regret for the harrowing event.

“I am sorry for what happened,” he said. “I feel fortunate that we are going to have a chance to have something positive come out of all this.”

Bressi and husband Tom have found resolve by reflecting on the might that has carried them throughout Christopher’s entire life.

“Such an experience never needs to happen to another family, and this time, no matter how frustrating it has appeared, can bring some good,” she said.

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at or ext. 124.