For four years, Janet Mino has worked with her young men, preparing them to graduate from JFK High School, a place that caters to those with special needs in the heart of one of the poorest cities in America, Newark, N.J.
All six of them have the severest form of autism, struggling to communicate, but Mino's high-energy style evokes a smile, a hug and real progress.
Much of the work that she does may ultimately unravel because after these young men earn their diplomas, their future options are bleak -- lingering at home, being placed in an institution or living on the streets.
New Jersey has the highest rate of autism in the nation and some of the best intervention resources. But after graduation, programs are scarce.
"They are adults longer than they are children," Mino, 46, told ABCNews.com. "We need to give them a light. It's up to us and up to me."
"There's nothing -- nothing out there," she said.
Mino, a whirling dervish of enthusiasm and warmth, is the subject of a documentary, "Best Kept Secret," that recently premiered at the Independent Film Festival in Boston and will be shown at this weekend's Montclair Film Festival in New Jersey.
Mino's efforts to find resources for her students are Herculean in a school that is touted as the state's "best kept secret." Her efforts are exacerbated by poverty and lack of funding, but her classroom is a happy place as she finds ways to reinforce that they are capable and worthy.
"I look at it as a challenge -- if I can get them as independent as possible," she said. "They are so wonderful. They make you laugh. ... They just think differently.
"Some people think that because they are nonverbal and can't communicate, they can't understand, but that's not true. From my experience, they read us better than we read them."
Director Samantha Buck ["21 Below"] and producer Danielle DiGiacomo, who is manager of video distribution at the Orchid, follow Mino and her students in their hardscrabble lives for 18 months leading up to their 2012 graduation.
"Autism is part of who we are as a society," said Buck, 30. "Across the country, young adults who turn 21 are pushed out of the school system. They often end up with nowhere to go; they simply disappear from productive society. This is what educators call 'falling off the cliff.'"
This year alone, 50,000 children with autism will turn 18, according to Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has sponsored federal legislation to provide funding for adult programs. Within two years of high school, less than half of those with autism spectrum disorder have paying jobs, the lowest rate of any disabled group.
"Meanwhile, adults with ASD run the highest risk of total social disengagement," Menendez told ABCNews.com in an email. "By the time they are in their early 20s, they risk losing the daily living skills they developed as children through supportive services."
"Their families still need support," he said. "The challenges they face will not disappear but only grow greater, and ultimately we will all pay the price for that."
Today, an estimated 1 in 50 U.S. school-age children are diagnosed with some form of autism, a number that has been on the rise, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the filmmakers said they did not want to focus on the "causes of autism and why."
"Here are these human beings and they live in our world and are part of our society," said Buck. "How do we integrate this huge population into our society?"
While on the festival circuit, Buck noticed the industry's interest in films about autism.
"I pretty much cried at every single one," said Buck. "They were predominantly centered around young Caucasian families with money."
The filmmakers looked for an inner-city school that would tell a different story. With the help of Menendez, they found JFK High School, where they followed Mino's students.
But funding is just part of the problem. Many of her students come from dysfunctional families that are challenged by poverty and lack of support.
Erik, the highest-functioning student in the group, is smart, talkative and great at following directions. He may be the most likely to make it in the real world. But his biological mother is too sick to care for him and he relies on a dedicated foster mother.
Robert's home life is chaotic and it is reflected in his classroom work. He can read and spell, but is frequently absent. His father home-schooled him until dying four years ago. Now, an aunt, a recovering drug addict, looks after him.
Quran is the only one being raised by both his parents. He is able to read and control all of his behaviors, but his family doesn't know where to turn for help.
"His parents spend every minute of the day thinking about him and his life," said film producer DiGiacomo. "But they have to put food on the table and there is no time to access information on places where he can go."
Parents work full time and need placement for their children when they go to work. Programs are costly and navigating the bureaucracy is difficult.
After-school recreation centers only operate from 10 to 1, impractical hours for working parents. And some families don't even have cars.
"These are the simplest things that we don't think about that can make or break families," said Buck. "But they don't have a woe-is-me [attitude]. This is their life and they love their children."
Erik works hard when given direction and takes on a part-time job cleaning at Burger King.
"Everybody loves him," said Buck. "They are good workers. This is not charity."
But students need work coaches to help with the transition into a job, and Erik's coach has 100 other clients.
Some will find part-time work or activities at a recreation center. Most of what is available resembles piecemeal factory work.
The filmmakers see Mino as the "heroine," fighting to create meaningful lives for her students.
Mino said the intensity of filming the search for her students' placements, she decided to fulfill a lifelong dream: to create her own center for young adults with autism.
She has now written a grant application to open the Valentine Center, which she calls the "center with a heart."
Mino said she hopes to provide parent-friendly hours and transportation, as well as a variety of therapies and activities -- "the basic things they need to survive."
Until then, Mino continues to teach at JFK High School, where it's all about her students.
"I fall in love easily," she said.
"They are people," director Buck said of Mino's students. "If an audience can feel emotionally connected to Eric or Quran or a Robert, that might be an impetus to do something. It's a first step."
Buck said the making of the film was "kismet, in a way" and her hope is that viewers "watch the film they stop seeing these guys as young men on the autism spectrum and really get to know them. ... It's a first step."
- Society & Culture
- Robert Menendez